Overcoming Barriers to Participation in the 2020 Census

November 11, 2019

Local officials know how important the 2020 Census is and that they play a vital role in ensuring a complete count in their communities. They may also know that no single area or group of people is guaranteed to participate. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau predicts a nationwide self-response rate of only 60.5 percent for next year’s count. This number suggests that there are significant barriers to participation, the most important of which are distrust in government, concerns about privacy and cybersecurity, and the presence of hard-to-count populations. Local governments can overcome these barriers by providing relevant and timely information to help their residents understand the process, build public trust, and increase everyone’s willingness to participate.

Census worker asking questions at a woman's home.

The Pew Research Center has conducted polling on perceptions of government for more than 60 years and recently found that public trust in government remains near historic lows. There is a silver lining, however, as government appears to work better locally than nationally. In 2018, 67 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of their local government (compared to 35 percent for the federal level). In other words, local officials still have opportunities to act as trusted voices when it comes to informing the public about the census and advocating for increased participation.

The 2020 Census marks the first time that responses will be collected online. Coupled with frequent news about data breaches and ransomware attacks, this raises concerns about privacy and cybersecurity. Local officials can address this barrier by pointing to U.S. Code Title 13, which prohibits Census employees from disclosing information that identifies an individual or business. Penalties for violating this law include a federal prison sentence of up to five years, a fine of up to $250,000, or both. The U.S. Census Bureau is also partnering with Microsoft’s Defending Democracy Program to protect its computer systems from hacking, disinformation, and misinformation.

Hard-to-count populations exist in different forms in every community. Generally identified by low response rates to the last census, these overlapping groups can be further distinguished with the following descriptions in order to develop effective outreach and information campaigns:
  1. Hard to locate: residents of housing units not captured by census efforts to collect residential addresses and/or anyone wanting to remain hidden.
  2. Hard to contact: highly mobile populations and/or people experiencing homelessness as well as physical access barriers.
  3. Hard to persuade: suspicious of government and/or displaying low civic engagement.
  4. Hard to interview: individuals with language barriers, low literacy rates, or lack of internet access.
Georgia’s cities can prepare for the 2020 Census and face the barriers outlined here with confidence. Their knowledge of local conditions will allow them to identify and address specific populations, and they are not alone in their efforts to count everyone. The census presents an ideal opportunity to cooperate with local and regional organizations, including other governments, the non-profit sector, or businesses. To learn more about partnerships and to access informational resources, visit GMA’s 2020 Census Toolkit.

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