Despite the controversy surrounding the possible addition of a citizenship question, and a slow start to recruiting workers, a senior U.S. Census Bureau official said he is expecting “an incredibly successful census” in 2020.
Tim Olson, the census bureau’s associate for field operations, provided the rosy outlook amid concerns that the Trump administration’s attempt last year to add a citizenship question to the census questionnaire would suppress the immigrant headcount. The bureau has also faced challenges in recruiting and hiring enough temporary workers throughout the U.S., given the low unemployment and delays in processing background checks. In addition, advocates are worried about the tight timeline to get the word out about the census.
Olson, who has worked for the census bureau since 1987, was in Chicago last week to speak at a two-day training conference for the bureau’s partnership specialists — the staffers who work with organizations and public officials on census outreach.
He sat down with WBEZ to discuss key dates, outreach and training efforts, and what the bureau is doing to prevent an undercount. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
WBEZ: How are census operations looking from a national perspective?
Olson: All along we've been worried that, in this economy of 50-year low unemployment, we would have really a hard time recruiting enough applicants to fill all of the jobs we have during the census. I'd been up at night, not sleeping at times, worried that we would not make our goal. Our goal is to recruit 2.67 million applicants, and then from that pool, we can hire about 500,000 people. And I have to tell you, I'm sleeping better at night: We have now surpassed 2.2 million applicants, and so we've got about 400,000 more to go throughout the nation. Every single day right now, we are averaging about 23,000 new applicants that are coming into the system. We'll meet that goal before our stated deadline of early March.
The other thing that makes me really optimistic about the 2020 census is, we've been building partnerships — with community organizations, local churches, schools, cities, counties, states — for the last three, four years. We surpassed 250,000 organizations that are actively partnering with us. I've never seen this level of engagement by partners and stakeholders outside of the bureau that are so passionate about making sure we get an accurate count in their community, in their state. Never seen it. This is my fourth census. Never have I seen this level of engagement.
WBEZ: Advocates and census experts say that boost of participation is a response to the Trump administration underfunding the census and trying to add a citizenship question to the form — potentially undercounting minority and immigrant populations. What do you say to that?
Olson: I'm not going to comment on that, particularly. What I am going to say though, is — regardless of the motivation — our major stakeholders at the national and the local level are so engaged and that's a good thing. The fact that they want to make sure their people are counted is an amazing thing that ... is going to positively impact the final count.
WBEZ: In some areas of Chicago, we’ve seen that candidates who apply for these jobs may face digital barriers and may not be technologically savvy. What do you do to make sure that the 500,000 people you actually hire from almost 2.7 million applicants are actually able to do the work?
Olson: Once they're selected, they go through an in-person training class. They learn how to use the smartphone that will be used to conduct the enumeration. We provide the full training as if nobody has ever used an iPhone, so it's pretty basic training. Before they can go out and actually do the work, they have to be observed by their supervisor. If they're having trouble, we give them a little bit more training. Even in a paper-based census, as we've done it in the past, there's always some people who are not comfortable meeting people they don't know and conducting an interview. So we're used to this. That's one reason we recruit five times more the number of applicants.
WBEZ: How is the technology being tested and vetted? How are you making sure cybersecurity is not a problem?
Olson: Our systems are ready to roll. They have been tested repeatedly, not only from a systems integrity perspective, but also from a cybersecurity perspective and also from a load-testing perspective. We're expecting millions of households to potentially respond within the same hour, so we have load-tested our systems so that we know they can handle this huge infusion of people hitting the systems simultaneously. I'm feeling really good about that.
WBEZ: Are the mailers printed and ready to be sent out?
Olson: The printing has been done since December, and they are just finishing applying the addresses to these millions of mailers. Beginning March 12, it'll take about a week for every household to receive that first invitation. We stagger the mailing so we don't overwhelm the post office.
WBEZ: What are some snafus or delays you’re anticipating in the enumeration process between May and early July?
Olson: One thing that we constantly are preparing for is if there's any natural disaster or weather-related issue that could affect our ability to follow up with households — tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, things of that nature. We have contingency plans already in the hopper so we know if X happens in this part of a state, this is what we do.
WBEZ: Take us through some key dates coming up so residents can know what to expect.
Olson: From March 12 and into April, we ask every household in the United States to self-respond to the census — online, over the phone, or with the paper form. In May, June, and early July, we will complete the in-person follow-up with all of those addresses that did not self-respond. At that point, we're done with the data collection. That's when my peers at census headquarters really go into high gear. [Between late July and November], they analyze that data and create tabulated responses. By no later than Dec. 31, the census bureau director, Steve Dillingham, will release — to the President of the United States and the American people — the total counts of the American population and at the state level. We will have a press briefing in [Washington, D.C.], a big event. We will deliver block-level data no later than March 30, 2021, to each state, and then it's up to them to take that and redraw the districts in their state.
WBEZ: Elected officials and local groups here in Illinois are worried about an undercount. What does the bureau itself do to prevent it?
Olson: The biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity is to really get that message out to regular people, [that] it's so easy, it takes you 10 minutes to fill out that form, and that it's safe and confidential. Those three messages are the most critical in terms of communicating with regular folks that live in regular neighborhoods, anywhere in the United States.
The second thing — and this is transparent to people — [is] the way you ask questions. On the form, which is new for 2020, we have added what we call “probe questions.” After somebody fills out the form, we go through a couple of questions: “Have you missed anybody in your household, such as young children, people temporarily living with you?” “Have you included anybody on the form who you shouldn't include, such as a college student who is away?” [Residents] will see this on the form, and they'll be prompted to think about it and grapple with who should be on the form versus who should not be. [Depending on the answer,] the form will automatically run you through so you can add that person. That's going to take us much farther along in an accurate count.
WBEZ: How is the eight-state Chicago region — and this city in particular — doing in its “get out the count” efforts?
Olson: The census staff here in Chicago are doing an amazing job. In Chicago itself, we are at about 90% of our applicants, which is much farther ahead than anywhere else in the nation. I also know that the city of Chicago is doing some amazing work through the mayor's office. And then on top of that, you've got the state of Illinois, and they're spending millions of dollars to get out the count throughout the state.
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.