The 2020 Census and COVID-19 — Context and Community Impacts


The current number of confirmed coronavirus (COVID-19) cases worldwide stands at 922,000 with upwards of 206,000 confirmed cases occurring in the United States (US). As of March 31, the President has declared 29 major disasters for states across the country.

Johns Hopkins 2019-nCoV Map of Global Cases: Source

As many of our readers may know, the US Census is happening this year — with today, April 1, being Census Day. From traditional letters mailed to residences to the use of celebrity messengers in advertisements — the US Census Bureau has been attempting to alert everyone of this important decennial event. What many people may not be aware of is how the US Census works and just how vital it is (especially during a global pandemic) to respond to this request.

Census Counts on Completing the 2020 Census: Source

What Are the U.S. Census Fundamentals?

Once every decade, the US government takes account of its residents across the US and its five territories. Everyone with a mailing address is sent a brief questionnaire asking for basic personal, household/occupant, and specific place of residence information. 

For the US 2020 Census, the original timeline for administering these questionnaires and undertaking other outreach efforts to capture a comprehensive snapshot of the population was scheduled to occur over the course of the full year, with counts to be submitted to the President and Congress in December of 2020. However, with the current COVID-19 pandemic and related response measures, the US Census Bureau has revised, suspended, and extended the schedule for planned activities. These changes have increased reliance on survey methods not requiring physical or in-person interactions, further complicating the comprehensive count.

2020 Census

The 2020 US Census Questionnaire: Source

What’s a “bad count” and why does it matter?

Census information is critical for countless applications beyond population projections. Our government uses census information to support civil rights enforcement, to inform community planning for education and medical facilities, and to determine essential resource allocations. For instance, in 2016, census data was utilized to help determine allocations of over $900 billion in federal funds through 325 programs, including:  

Federal funding through these and other programs is pivotal in maintaining and increasing the resilience of our nation’s critical infrastructure. Without an accurate count during the census (or a “bad count”), communities are exposed to repeated underfunding for public services.

Beyond determining the allocation of resources, census data is also used to determine how many House of Representatives Congressional seats each state is allotted and for redistricting purposes. The Census 2020 timeline calls for the Census Bureau to send redistricting counts to states by March 31, 2021.

How Could COVID-19 Skew the Census Results?

As new guidance is issued from federal, state and local agencies on an ongoing basis, it is worth considering how the COVID-19 pandemic may impact census counts, exacerbating pre-existing concerns and creating new issues entirely. As social distancing is encouraged and shelter-in-place orders become more prevalent, there is an increased need for census data to be collected online. It is simply not feasible to execute in-person census-taking efforts as originally intended. Not everyone has internet access, let alone free and easily accessible access, which are issues disproportionately impacting low-income and rural populations, as well as those experiencing homelesness. In-person efforts are often the primary or only methods for gathering information about certain populations, including individuals experiencing homelessness or receiving medical treatment in a hospital, two groups that are both increasing due to COVID-19. While the Census Bureau has already begun modifying its plan of action, the evolution of COVID-19 and its associated impacts remains fluid. 


First Microscopic Image of US COVID-19 CASE: Source

What Can Communities do to Safely Encourage Participation?

The Census Bureau has issued press releases providing guidance to the public and emphasizing the importance of responding now, either online, by phone, or by mail. Encouraging participation through these channels will help minimize the need for in-person census takers on the ground, thereby reducing the risk of spreading the virus. 

Community officials must emphasize the importance of responding to the census — using locally-relevant messaging to highlight the importance of getting an accurate count of the community, while pivoting in-person efforts to digital strategies. While they may not be able to deliver these messages in-person, local leaders can instead shift to text message campaigns, phone banking, and social media outreach. 

In communities around the country, necessary shifts to promote participation in the 2020 census have already begun. For instance, in Seattle, a local nonprofit with a focus on census outreach, El Centro de la Raza, has shifted staff almost completely to telework and has begun running radio spots encouraging residents to respond to the Census and offering assistance to help residents respond by phone. 

The Hagerty Team will continue providing information and updates on current events and disasters affecting the nation.



 Keep track of Hagerty’s Incident coverage here: