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Census dry run faces lack of funding, publicity

Test run of Census 2020 allows online completion, does not include question about citizenship

The 2020 Census’ first and only dry run was conducted in Providence County earlier this year. The test run included a new ability to respond to the census through an online survey but did not include the controversial “citizenship question,” which would ask respondents about their U.S. citizenship status. The results from the test will not be published until early next year, according to Census Bureau Public Information Officer Daniel Velez.

In previous years, there has been more than one test before the census roll-out. Originally, the Census Bureau had planned to do three full dry runs — one in Providence County and two others in Washington and West Virginia. Because of years of underfunding, the Bureau had to scale back to one dry run and had no available funds to publicly advertise the census in Providence, said William O’Hare, president of O’Hare Data LLC and Demographic Services.

City and state officials in Rhode Island were concerned about the lack of preparation and public education for the test run last April, the Providence Journal previously reported.

“The City and state of Rhode Island have much to lose should our population fall as a percentage of the national whole; including federal funding for seniors, roads and educational programs, and the state’s representation in Congress could be affected,” wrote Ben Smith, deputy director of communications for Mayor Jorge Elorza, in an email to The Herald. He believes that there will be more advertising when the fully funded census rolls out in 2020.

Facing a lack of funding, national and local organizations — including the Providence Complete Council Committee — stepped up to try to inform the public of the dry run. Among the members of this committee was Secretary of the Portuguese-American Leadership Council of the United States Marie Fraley, who helped troubleshoot problems the test census encountered. Fraley said she used social media and both print and online publications to inform and encourage those in the Portuguese community to participate in the test. She hopes to use the outreach model on a national level in 2020.

Providence Complete Council Committee member and Executive Director of Common Cause Rhode Island John Marion said that underfunding is cause for concern. During an event he held last June, Marion asked the Census Bureau for brochures to hand out but was told instead to print out information from the Bureau’s website, as no literature had been prepared.

While the Bureau attended all committee meetings and answered all the questions it could, “what was frustrating from the common view point was that they weren’t allowed to do a robust outreach effort,” Marion said. “The community is going to have to stand up and be counted and not wait for the census to come count (them).”

Over half of Providence County responded to the census without a phone call or home visit, and 61 percent of those who responded filled out the census online, according to the Census Bureau report. Both the response rate on first attempt and internet response rate were higher than the Bureau expected, according to the report.

Though the online response format will save the Bureau money, some have questioned its effect on rural areas.

“There’s a lot of data that shows that rural areas are less likely to be connected or have high speed internet, and so there’s some concern among rural advocates that (by) pushing the internet response, … some people in rural areas may be missed disproportionately,” O’Hare said, adding that it’s a concern for people in any type of community that have limited or no internet access.

The dry run also had a significant omission: the citizenship question. After the test run began in Providence, the Trump administration announced that the question, which asks everyone living in the United States whether they are citizens, would be included in the 2020 Census.

“There was a lot of confusion among the public in Providence County about whether the citizenship question was included on the test, which it wasn’t,” Marion said. “The timing was very poor for the purposes of the test.”

O’Hare said he worries that the citizenship question could have significant effects on the number of responses to the 2020 Census. In a published report, O’Hare found that since 2010, fewer people have been responding to the citizenship question in the annual American Community Survey, which is also conducted by the Census Bureau. He also found that Hispanic, Asian and non-citizen populations, among others, are less likely to respond to the question. 

“My study shows that there is much higher sensitivity to the question on citizenship than there is to other kinds of questions that will be on the 2020 Census, and that sensitivity is very likely to lead to more people not responding to the census,” O’Hare said.

Professor of Population Studies Michael White said that although the Bureau prepares years in advance for the decennial census, their preparation for the use of the citizen question is inadequate.

“From my point of view, I’m quite concerned that this effort was made to include (the citizenship question) in the 2020 Census without testing it fully,” White said, adding that citizenship information can be gathered from other sources.

The census will roll out in April 2020.



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