Even before the outbreak, the 2020 census was going to look a bit different this year: It’s the first time people could respond online in census history.
Then, the pandemic forced the decennial population count to pivot even more.
The U.S. Census Bureau had to adapt operations during the COVID-19 outbreak. Plans to go door to door are delayed — and the self-response phase has been extended an additional three months.
Organizers say, though, the response rate so far is positive, including in Tennessee. Currently 58.4% of Tennessee households have self-responded, close to the 58.6% national average.
Michelle Archer, an assistant regional census manager, says the current response rates are heartening.
“Based on our predictions and projections for where we should be at this point, even given the fact that we’re dealing with this epidemic, we are right on target to where we anticipated being,” Archer says. “It’s fantastic seeing people self-responding — and not only self-responding but actually telling others.”
According to Archer, data collected through self-response is more accurate, so the Census Bureau pushes to get as many responses as they can get through that method.
Households can self-respond by phone, mail or online until Oct. 31. For those that haven’t responded yet, census takers will start door-knocking and interviewing households in person at the end of August.
Archer says it’s important to be counted because population numbers determine how funds are distributed.
“Federal funds come back to the community through federal programs like schools, school lunch programs, emergency preparedness, hospitals, roadways,” she says. “So it’s really important that not only you are counted, but your community is counted — so your community gets their fair share of federal funding.”
The census, in many ways, has always adapted with the times: The inaugural census in 1790 was taken by U.S. marshals on foot and horseback, and it was recorded on forms made of parchment and animal skins.
At that time, the entire U.S. population was just slightly less than the population of the Seattle metro area today.