2020 census increases its accessibility and diversity

The Census Bureau will conduct its decennial census from March 12 to July 31, this year with more comprehensive race choices as well as an online option.

The Bureau sends out surveys to U.S. civilians in order to collect crucial information needed for population counting, federal and state budgets, and congressional seat reapportioning. Accuracy is critical in the census because it dictates policy decisions that will last through the rest of the decade.

“Almost 20 states are estimated to gain or lose congressional seats based on the outcome. More than $1.5 trillion in federal funding — including for first responders, grants, Medicare, tax credits, and other spending — are determined by the court,” Bloomberg reporter Michaela Ross wrote.

Increased recent consciousness of  social diversity as well as the need for race data has led to the creation of more diverse categorizations. Although the census now offers distinct racial and ethnic options for Asian countries such as “Asian Indian,” “Chinese,” “Japanese” and “Vietnamese,” one lingering issue from the 2010 census was its offering of only one blanket “White” category for all such white persons.

Census Bureau Director of Race and Ethnic Research and Outreach Nicholas Jones reported that in the 2010 census, many respondents who actually classified as “White” or “Black” used the “Some other race” option to report specific ethnic identities such as “Irish” and “Jamaican.” This has encouraged the Census Bureau to expand race and origin options.

“People are increasingly not answering the race question,” Roberto Ramirez, Assistant Division Chief of the Bureau’s special population statistics branch, told The Atlantic. “They are not identifying with the current categories, so we are trying to come up with a [better] question.”

Though issues with race options remain, the Bureau has made progress.

For example, a category called “MENA” was introduced in the 2015 National Content Test (NCT) to allow respondents with Middle Eastern, North African and/or Arab roots to identify themselves. However, many Middle Eastern and North African participants believed that each country should have their own place in the race options, leading the Census Bureau to collaborate with groups such as the Arab American Institute to improve the options. 

“The objective of the NCT was to collect detailed information on ethnic and racial groups, which is what the public has been demanding,” Jones stated. “It is more than just our quest to have identities validated, to be able to say, ‘This is who I am,’ but it is also to get data back for [government] programs — information that tells us who we are.”

 In March 2018, the Census Bureau released the planned questions for the 2020 census. Although it will continue using broad categorizations of “White” and “Black,” unlike the 2010 census, it offers a designated section for participants to write in specific races.

Along with wider ethnic coverage, the census, which has historically been conducted on paper or over the phone, will become more accessible in 2020 through a novel online option. This shift takes place in response to the growing ease of internet access and use, especially compared to the U.S. mail system.

However, the rise of digital pathways also invites many new risks for the Bureau. Technological difficulties and cyber attacks could compromise accuracy and jeopardize future government decisions, and the government lacks resources needed to improve its weak technology.

“The Bureau’s IT systems — which will support the 2020 Census — contained fundamental security deficiencies that violated federal standards and U.S. Department of Commerce policies,” a Department of Commerce inner source reported. “Many of these deficiencies indicate that the Bureau was ‘behind schedule and rushed to deploy its systems.’”

These problems stem from inadequate congressional funding and slow administrative action over the past decade, which have left the U.S. unprepared for the shift to online forms. Indeed, small-scale tests, including a recent one in Providence, have already yielded concerning results. 

According to a report released by the Government Accountability Office, “A software glitch sent multiple canvassers to the same block. Some workers had trouble finding an internet connection to transmit the information they had collected. Others had trouble recording people’s responses in an application on their smartphones.”

Even without the additional threat of cyber attacks, the software itself appears unreliable. A single glitch could affect the data of thousands of civilians.

Moreover, many hackers are eager to access private information and disrupt census results. The 2016 Russian election meddling and the recent crackdown on Russian trolls show that cyber threats pose a serious threat to U.S. security. 

According to the New York Times, there have been multiple international precedents of digital census meddling. In 2016, Australia’s online census program was targeted by hackers, resulting in temporary failure and public ridicule through #CensusFail. Just two years ago, census system testing was disrupted by Russian hackers targeting government websites. 

The census is responsible for important decisions like allocating funds to federal assistance programs and determining congressional representatives. If it fails, then these decisions may be inaccurate, thus inaccurately reflecting the needs of the American populace.

“The price is poor quality data, and the price of that lives with us for a decade,” former Bureau official Steve Jost said.