Pandemic year pushed Census to rely on records for count

From heavy use of administrative records to new weekly surveys, the pandemic changed the Census Bureau’s approach to data

A sign encouraging people to fill out the census stands in a planter in Roswell, N.M., last August.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A sign encouraging people to fill out the census stands in a planter in Roswell, N.M., last August. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 10, 2021 at 12:04pm

The coronavirus pandemic caused massive disruptions to the decennial census, which the Census Bureau is still trying to clean up, but it also laid the groundwork for massive changes to the way the federal government looks at data.

In mid-March last year, the Census Bureau delayed, then suspended, efforts to count people in person, as well as a personal outreach campaign years in the making. Existing plans got thrown out the window, said acting Census Bureau Director Ron Jarmin.

“The timing of the pandemic was about as inconvenient as you could think of for a Census Day of April 1,” he said.

The agency also had to contend with the fact that the people most affected by the pandemic, communities of color and low-wage front-line workers, were the least likely to respond on their own.

Delays from the pandemic, as well as a record hurricane and wildfire season and various Trump administration decisions, pushed the census process back further than at any time in modern history. Census officials now expect to deliver congressional apportionment figures in April and detailed redistricting data in September.

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Those delays as well as massive population shifts — millions of college students headed to parents’ homes right before they could be counted at school — forced the Census Bureau to rely on administrative records more than ever before. 

The agency made more use of college enrollment registers and other administrative records to count people than it has previously, Jamin said. It also relied on the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System and information from the National Center for Education Statistics to help track down college students, he said.  

Agency officials have since spent months finalizing that and other data, used for apportionment, redistricting and hundreds of federal programs totaling more than $1.5 trillion in spending annually. The delays in delivering that data to states, Jarmin said, may spur further changes in how the agency handles census results.

“We kind of had a 21st-century approach to collecting the data, and we’re still using a very 20th-century approach to process the data,” Jarmin said.

Jarmin said much of the agency’s effort has been focused on innovations to make the count itself more accurate, rather than streamlining the back-end data cleanup work. In the future, the agency may invest in new software infrastructure that could allow it to automate more of the processing and reduce time-consuming human involvement, he said. 

Pulse of the future

During the pandemic, the Census Bureau also collaborated with other federal agencies to produce two short-term surveys. The agency started the Household Pulse Survey and Small Business Pulse Survey last summer, with results initially coming out weekly and then biweekly.

The surveys tracked information ranging from food insecurity to likelihood of business closure. Over time, the Census Bureau changed the survey, trimming questions and adding others like those about vaccinations.

Howard Fienberg, vice president of the marketing research and data analytics industry trade group Insights Association, said the surveys offer a glimpse of what the government can do to leverage its existing resources for immediately useful data.

“That’s the kind of survey our members do every day, whoop-de-doo. But for a government agency to be able to do that, in a government bureaucracy, that’s massive,” Fienberg said.

Former Census Bureau Director Kenneth Prewitt, who oversaw the 2000 count, said the surveys showed a shift in thinking for the Census Bureau. Normally, the agency spends years perfecting “gold standard, benchmark” statistical products without regard for immediate use.

“This incredible capacity to turn this data around in two weeks is kind of unprecedented. I hate that word, it is so heavily used, but it is true,” Prewitt said. “It proves to us that we know how to do things differently from what we have done for decades and decades and decades.”

Jarmin said the agency is looking at rolling out similar surveys to give policymakers and the public real-time glimpses at changes in the country after natural disasters or similar disruptions.

Prewitt said those factors may make the 2020 count a turning point for the agency. He sees the next decennial count diving further into administrative records and data — so much so that the agency could end up curating more data from other federal government agencies and commercial databases than it collects independently for the next once-in-a-decade count.

“The 2030 census is going to look less like the 2020 census than the 2020 census looked like the 1790 census,” Prewitt said.