Unpredictable Residency during the COVID-19 Pandemic Spells Trouble for the 2020 Census Count

Blog by Diana Elliott and Robert Santos: “Social distancing measures to curtail the community spread of COVID-19 have upended daily life. Just before lockdowns were implemented across the country, there was tremendous movement and migration of people relocating to different residences to shelter in place. This makes sense for the people involved but could be disastrous for the communities they fled and the final 2020 Census counts.

Pandemic-based migration undermines an accurate count

The 2020 Census, like most data collected by the US Census Bureau, is residence based. In the years leading up to 2020, the US Census Bureau worked diligently on the quality of the Master Address File, or the catalog of all residential addresses in the country. Staff account for newly built housing developments and buildings, apartment units or accessory dwelling units that are used as permanent residences, and the demolition of homes and apartments in the past decade. Census materials are sent to an address, rather than a person.

Most residences across America have already received their 2020 Census invitation. Whether completed online, by paper, by phone, or in person, the first official question on the 2020 Census questionnaire is “How many people were living or staying in this house, apartment, or mobile home on April 1, 2020?” Households are expected to answer this based on the concept of “usual residence,” or the place where a person lives and sleeps most of the time.

Despite written guidance provided on the 2020 Census on how to answer this question, doing so may be wrought with complexities and nuance from the pandemic.

First, research reveals that respondents do not often read questionnaire instructions; they dive in and start answering. With many people scrambling to other counties, cities, and states to hunker down for the long haul with loved ones, this will lead to incorrect counts when people are counted at temporary addresses.

Second, for many, the concept of “usual residence” has little relevance in the uncertainty unfolding during the COVID-19 pandemic. What if your temporary address becomes your permanent address? What does “usual residence” mean during a global epidemic that could stretch for 18 months or more? And perhaps more importantly, what should it mean?

Finally, there is the added complication of census operational delays (PDF). Self-response to the 2020 Census has been extended into August, as have the nonresponse follow-up efforts, when enumerators knock on the doors of those who haven’t yet answered the census. Additional delays seem unavoidable. The longer the delay, the more time there is for people who have not yet completed a census form to realize their temporary plan has evolved into a state of permanence….(More)”.