In June, Melna Inge, a resident in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood, filled out the census for herself and her elderly mother while getting her car repaired.
She said the process was quick and easy, and she took screenshots of the confirmation pages on her phone.
Last month, Inge got a visit from a census enumerator — temporary employees assigned to knock on doors and count households that have not self-responded online, via phone or by paper questionnaire. The census worker told Inge that both her and her mother’s units were showing up on the list for the Nonresponse Followup operation, or NRFU, as the Census Bureau calls it.
“It was weird,” Inge said. “I talked to [the enumerator] through the window, I was like, ‘Wow, that’s really strange because I completed the census for both of us.’”
But Inge was worried about not getting counted, so she went through the entire process of filling out the census again with the enumerator.
Inge said she is concerned about a potential glitch in the census — or possibly something more serious.
“Particularly with all that’s been going on with the current administration and the postal service and all of that,” Inge said, “it could be nothing, maybe just a couple of mistakes here and there. It could be a glitch, or it could be nefarious.”
Inge is not alone in her questions about the enumeration process. Neighborhood Facebook groups and message boards, including the Federal Trade Commission’s, are full of stories like hers: residents who filled out the census weeks or months ago, but are being visited — sometimes repeatedly — by census workers.
Those complaints are signs pointing to a host of problems that have surfaced during the enumeration process. Barring any last-minute court decisions or action by Congress, the Census Bureau has less than two weeks to finish counting residents. But tech issues, project management flaws, decreased funding and a shortened timeline have led to a chaotic time for census enumerators and the people they’re counting, WBEZ has learned.
The problems have enumerators and others worried that everyone won’t get counted and that the repercussions will cost residents, particularly those in vulnerable communities, for many years to come. The census affects political representation and federal funding. Many have already expressed concerns about an undercount in the Chicago region due to the compressed timeline.
“There’s a better way to do this”
Mare Ralph, a recent graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s urban planning program, is one of several enumerators who’ve witnessed problems. Having used census data regularly during grad school, Ralph was initially excited to work as a door-knocker in Chicago’s Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods.
A few weeks into the job, reality has set in.
“A lot of my experience has been frustrating … just feeling like there’s a better way to do this,” Ralph said.
WBEZ spoke to four current and two former enumerators, all of whom experienced problems with the technology they were issued to do their work: the older-model iPhones issued by the Census Bureau and an app that directs them to the households they’re assigned to visit.
For example, enumerators said, the app assigns them to the same homes over and over again — despite the resident maintaining that they already filled out the census online. The software also does not sort addresses by proximity, census workers told WBEZ, which means they often end up zigzagging through the territories they’re covering in no particular order. Often, the addresses and unit numbers that appear on their list do not match with those on mailboxes and doors, the enumerators said.
Ralph said the app also has no way to filter out households by a resident’s language preference. The program would assign Ralph, who does not speak Spanish, to the same Spanish-speaking home again and again.
“I’ve had to figure out the phrases I can say in Spanish so [residents] can complete the census on their own,” Ralph said.
Katrina Herrmann did a six-week stint as an enumerator in Wicker Park starting in late July. During that period, Herrmann said, she had four different supervisors and witnessed “a very, very disorganized” operation with “basic inefficiencies.”
With regard to the app, she said there was no way to cut and paste any information nor look up an address or a case number to check whether a resident had already completed the census. Hermman said she and her team members regularly found themselves telling their supervisor that residents said they had already filled out the census.
“I would send him the case number, and he’d pass it on up to his supervisor, and we never really got a clear answer on why these double hits kept showing up,” she said.
While Herrmann said only about 10% of the residents with whom she spoke said they had already filled out the census online, for Ralph and other enumerators that number was closer to 50%.
One enumerator in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, who wished to remain anonymous because census workers are not cleared to speak to the media, said up to 80% of the residents she visited said they had already filled out the census. While some of those residents may not be telling her the truth, this enumerator said, many seemed genuinely concerned and confused about why they were getting the repeat visit.
Ray Doeksen, an enumerator who lost his paralegal job due to the COVID-19 pandemic, worked for the 2010 census as a supervisor. He said the closures of physical spaces for local census offices this year — in favor of communicating virtually — has resulted in less knowledge-sharing among enumerators, leading to frustration for both workers and residents.
A former U.S. Army captain, Doeksen credits his military background for the resourcefulness needed to “close out” many of his challenging cases in the Logan Square neighborhood. But Doeksen says he wishes there was a way more enumerators could share best practices with one another besides texting each other in a group chat.
“I understand why [the bureau] did it this way — it probably saved millions of dollars by not having all these local offices staffed up, but something has been lost in the process,” he said. “There is not a lot of lateral knowledge sharing in this very hierarchical structure that they built digitally.”
In some cases, enumerators in Chicago, Ralph and Doeksen included, were asked in group texts to travel to other towns — and even other states like Georgia and Iowa — to help with the counting there, all expenses paid.
“It was just bizarre,” Ralph said. “There are tons of places in Chicago that I’m sure could use more attention, so it seems strange to be flying people out of Chicago to enumerate elsewhere.”Chicago’s census self-response rate — the percentage of households that have completed the census on their own — is 59%, compared to 66% nationwide. In some parts of the city’s South and West sides — including tracts in the Back of the Yards, Little Village, Englewood, New City, North Lawndale, South Chicago, West Englewood, West Garfield Park and Woodlawn neighborhoods — those numbers are below 35%.
Ralph and other enumerators expressed concern that such neighborhoods may be undercounted at the expense of an inefficient operation — and ultimately be under resourced for the next decade.
Enumerators also worried that the problems they’ve experienced would erode the public’s trust in the census.
But census officials say productivity during the nonresponse follow-up process has been ahead of schedule.
“The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2020 Census mobile devices have performed beyond expectation, resulting in higher than anticipated productivity. All indications at this point are that our devices have been successful,” read a statement that the U.S. Census Bureau provided WBEZ Friday afternoon.
As of Sept. 15, with about two weeks remaining in the headcount, census workers had completed about 52 million of nearly 63 million cases nationwide. Census workers, according to figures shared in a census bureau presentation. Census workers are completing about 2.13 cases per hour, more than 1.55 cases per hour needed to tackle the remaining cases, the presentation shows.
“We’re sending successful teams of census takers — upon completion of their assigned areas — to areas that require more help. Using experienced staff minimizes the need to train new staff,” the statement continued. “We are committed to a complete and accurate count of all communities. We encourage everyone who has not yet responded — to respond now online at 2020census.gov, by phone, or by mail — or when a census taker visits your home.”
In an interview last week, Ellisa Johnson, the assistant regional manager for the Chicago Region of the U.S. Census Bureau, told WBEZ that her office has been fielding numerous calls from residents about the repeat door-knockers.
“We have listened to the concerns, we are aware of the concerns,” she said. “And [residents] can rest assured that we are making sure that the non-response follow-up process, the knocking on the doors … is of the highest integrity.”
Johnson said there are a number of reasons for the repeat visits from census workers.
“We’ve been doing the census for a very long time,” Johnson said. “There are quality controls that we have to follow, so it’s not a waste of resources. It’s not a waste of the enumerator’s time or the public’s time.”
Johnson said enumerators will follow up with residents who’ve completed the census using their address but not their specific census ID from the bureau’s mailers sent out to homes several months ago. Sometimes, a second enumerator is sent out to check the work of another census worker, Johnson said. And, in some cases, enumerators will visit residents to verify the headcount of a neighbor’s household.
The visits could also be triggered by a delay in processing paper forms that residents have mailed in, Johnson said.
Asked why neither the app nor the public website had a system for looking up addresses or case numbers to verify whether a resident had completed the census successfully and correctly, Johnson said, “It’s just not part of what we built into the system.”
She pointed out that the 2020 census is the first time the operation has gone online. “We’re innovatively improving things,” Johnson said.
A lack of funding, testing and time
Some of the issues have resulted from funding problems at the bureau, according to census consultant Terri Ann Lowenthal.
She said a lack of funds may have impacted the phase of the census where the bureau updates and verifies its master list of addresses, leading to discrepancies that are manifesting themselves during the enumeration process.
The tech problems may have been missed because the census canceled two of its three planned field tests in 2018 due to budget cuts by the Trump administration, said Lowenthal, a former congressional staffer on the census oversight subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives.
“When the Census Bureau cannot thoroughly test and retest and validate every aspect of the census before the census takes place, it increases the risk that things will go wrong during the census,” she said. “That certainly includes the application of technology.”
But the problems might not end with enumeration. Lowenthal said there is still another operation that could be impacted by the decisions of the Trump administration: the final step of the census, the data processing phase.
When COVID-19 hit, the White House initially supported experts’ recommendations to extend the census timeline. But then the administration reversed course, moved up the counting deadline from Oct. 31 to Sept. 30, and ordered the bureau to submit its final tallies by Dec. 31 — the original, pre-COVID-19 deadline.
“Under the rushed timeline, the administration would force the Census Bureau to compress five or six months worth of data processing into three months,” Lowenthal said, referring to the final stage of the census where the bureau eliminates duplicate entries and ensures the collected data is as accurate as possible.
Given the challenges stemming from budget shortfalls, plus the COVID-19 pandemic and the wildfires on the West Coast, Lowenthal said Congress needs to move quickly to extend the census timelines. On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation to push back the counting deadline to Oct. 31 and also extend the Dec. 31 deadline for data processing by four months.
Several groups have also sued the Trump administration to push back the counting deadline beyond this month. In one of those cases, a federal judge from California has issued a restraining order to prevent the Census Bureau from winding down its counting operations.
Meanwhile, Lowenthal said residents should be patient with enumerators and cooperate with them — even if it means answering questions about neighbors. She added that more than 20% of the households counted during the NRFU operation in 2010 were by these “proxy interviews,” where enumerators ask neighbors, landlords and other sources how many people live at a given address.
“I understand that it’s frustrating to get a visit [from a census enumerator],” Lowenthal said. “But the census is the nation’s largest, most complex activity short of mobilizing for war, and everybody has a role to play.”
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.