Will the Census Undercount the Foreign-Born? I Worry that It Will

By David North on March 19, 2020

I just finished responding to the 2020 Census and worry that it will undercount, perhaps seriously, the foreign-born and other minorities.

Yesterday I got a two-page document in the mail from the Census Bureau, inviting me to respond via e-mail, and telling me that if I don't I will get a paper questionnaire later — and if I do not reply to that, someone will come to the door asking the same questions. The instructions included information in English and 12 other languages, including both Haitian Creole and Tagalog.

So this morning I typed in my 12-digit (both letters and numbers) census ID at my2020census.gov. I do not think of myself as skilled with computers, and was dreading the combination of my clumsiness and the expected complexity of what I was facing. I was told that it would take all of 10 minutes — I doubted that.

I was completely wrong on both counts. This was the more common short form of the census, and perhaps a long, and more detailed, form will come later. The one I experienced had no question about my place of birth, and, as we all know, none on citizenship. (For the record, I was born in Chicago and am thus a U.S. citizen.)

But the form itself was quite easy to follow; it appeared to be well-designed, and I had no trouble with any of the questions. The whole task was, in fact, finished in 10 minutes.

I remain concerned about the response level from people with even fewer computer skills than I have, in terms of each of the three levels of data collecting: the online one, the paper one, and the in-person one, The well-educated and more prosperous than average will be more likely to respond to one of the first two techniques; and those with lesser skill levels, will be less likely to use either approach.

This leaves those to be surveyed by the field staff.

Will the Census Bureau, in this administration, devote enough money to hiring people for the (not terribly well-paid) door-to-door work? Will it, at a time of virus-demanded social distancing, be able to hire the people it can afford? Finally, to what extent will fear of the virus prevent the field staff from interviewing all that need to be contacted?

I worry that the answer to all three of these questions will be negative, making it less likely that we will get a full count of the foreign-born and other minority populations, and of low-income people, in general.

The Trump administration did not bring us the virus, but the virus may help keep down the number of responses to the census, and thus the urban counts, a result that will probably not — by the way — trouble the guy in the White House.