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Virus makes the 2020 Census more complicated than it already was

U.S. Census Bureau photo
You can spare Census takers from having to come to your door by filling out the 2020 Census questionnaire online or by phone now.

An inventive TV producer could script a complete game show with all of the unusual or borderline situations that Census Bureau workers may encounter while carrying out the once a decade national headcount. Then on top of it all, the current coronavirus outbreak introduced a plot twist that has delayed some 2020 Census training and field operations.

Yet, the census count is now underway in the Pacific Northwest. You might have recently received a letter with an invitation to complete the census online or by phone. Census takers were to follow up beginning in April with people who didn't get a mailing or ignored it, but that operation has been pushed back to launch in May, in part to protect the health and safety of census takers.

U.S. Census Bureau leaders said one important thing residents can do if they are hunkered down during the coronavirus outbreak is to respond to the 2020 Census. Your response now reduces the need for census workers to go door-to-door later.

"It has never been easier to respond on your own," said Tim Olson, associate director for field operations at the Census Bureau. "You can respond online, by phone or by mail without ever meeting a census taker."

The stakes are high, which is why Washington state and Oregon have budgeted millions of dollars of state taxpayer money to boost response rates to the federal population count. Census numbers guide the distribution of billions of federal dollars and determine how many congressional seats each state gets. Oregon is on track to gain an additional U.S. House seat through reapportionment after 2020 if current population projections hold.

Olson said the best-laid plans for hiring temporary census workers, training, outreach and door-to-door canvassing are being reevaluted or revised on a daily basis to adapt to guidance from health authorities and increasingly, to restrictions on non-essential travel and group gatherings. The dropping off of paper census forms in some rural areas such as tribal reservations was halted "out of an abundance of caution."

"We are not currently in the field. That is on pause," Olson told reporters on a conference call on Friday.

Credit Tom Banse / NW News Network
NW News Network
Many Americans have received a letter from the Census Bureau this month with an invitation to fill out a questionnaire online, but you do not need to wait for a mailing to respond to the 2020 Census.

The coronavirus outbreak has thrown a wrinkle into capturing the myriad of living situations in America besides regular people in regular houses who are taking advantage of the online response option, which is available for the first time in the 2020 Census.

Do you count inmates in jails and prisons and where do they count?

"We absolutely count inmates in correctional facilities, both state, federal and local correctional facilities," said Toby Nelson, a Seattle-based Census Bureau spokesperson, in an interview. "We count those inmates at the facility in which they are incarcerated as of Census Day. Census Day in 2020 is April 1."
The coronavirus risk could have introduced a complication in that no visitors are currently allowed at Northwest prisons and jails. Luckily, the Census Bureau had previously arranged to collect prison rosters electronically to count that population, or will simply drop-off paper forms for jail staff to distribute.

"We complete all of the census information through our centralized research unit," said Oregon Department of Corrections spokesperson Jennifer Black in an email. "The coronavirus outbreak will not impact our responses."

A number of Northwest lawmakers want to change the policy of attributing inmates to their prison locations for the 2030 Census. Oregon Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley recently sponsored a bill to count inmates at their last address in the community before incarceration.

Merkley argues the current policy distorts the redistricting process by skewing the count to the benefit of towns with prisons while diluting the representation of places with high rates of incarceration, which he said tend to be low-income communities of color.

The Senate bill was introduced on March 12 with co-sponsorship from Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden and Washington Sen. Patty Murray. It has not been scheduled for a hearing. A nearly identical version of the legislation was introduced in the U.S. House last year to change the prison inmate methodology for the 2020 Census, but it never came to a vote.

People who entered the U.S. illegally are living here. Do they get counted?

"Absolutely, our objective is to count the resident population of the United States regardless of citizenship status," said Nelson. "The census will not include a citizenship question."

Federal courts blocked the Trump administration from adding a citizenship question to this year's census. Census leaders frequently reiterate that the bureau, by law, holds your answers completely confidential and does not share personal information with immigration agents, the IRS or any other entity.

The Census Bureau is currently fighting off a lawsuit by the state of Alabama and Rep. Mo Brooks, a Republican from that state, which is arguing in court to get unauthorized immigrants excluded from census numbers used to determine the distribution of congressional seats among the states. The Democratic attorneys general of Oregon and Washington as well as the city of Seattle have intervened in the federal court case in defense of the Census Bureau's centuries-old approach of counting citizens and noncitizens alike.

What about migrant farm workers who have different addresses at different times of year?

Migrant workers begin to arrive in the Pacific Northwest in early spring to tackle orchard pruning and get ready for early crops such as asparagus.

"We ask all residents of the United States including migrant workers to respond with the address and at the address where they normally live and sleep as of April 1," Nelson explained.

Nelson said the "usual residence" rules date back to the very first U.S. census in 1790.

"We update with the times technologically," said Nelson. "But there are still some enduring bedrock principles that have remained consistent over a quarter millennium."

How about homeless folks who don't have an address to give to the census?

"We count the homeless at whatever place they are usually living as of April 1," said Nelson. "In some cases that might be a shelter. In other cases, it might be an outdoor location."

Census takers were scheduled to fan out to homeless shelters, soup kitchens and outdoor encampments from March 30-April 1. But because of the coronavirus, that targeted canvassing has been postponed to the second half of April.

How about a traveling salesperson who happens to be in a local hotel on April 1?

Nelson gave the hypothetical example of a traveling salesman who owns a home in Spokane and lives in Spokane, but perhaps was staying in a hotel in Olympia on April 1.

"(The salesperson) would respond with the address of their home in Spokane because that is the place they normally live and sleep as of April 1, even though that one night they might be in a different location," Nelson answered.

What is happening with the count at college dorms?

The coronavirus outbreak has led many colleges and universities to suspend classroom instruction, often replacing that virtual learning. The online instruction model frees college students to move back in with mom and dad, if they so choose, or somewhere else. Some colleges have gone so far as to close student dorms. This has introduced an unwelcome variable in making an accurate count of the college-age population and attributing students to the right places.

The Census Bureau on Saturday posted a YouTube video to provide guidance to college and university students for how to correctly answer the census during this unsettled period. The bureau said it is also working with college housing and Greek Row administrators on a rescheduled count of on-campus residents.

"Students that normally live at school should be counted at school, even if you are temporarily living somewhere else due to the COVID-19 pandemic," said Virginia Hyer, a Census Bureau public information officer. "If you usually live with your parents during the school year, they should include you when they respond to the census."

What about someone staying in a hospital on Census Day, such as a baby born on April 1?

"We would count them at the location that they will be living," Nelson said. "So, the location that they will going to after leaving the hospital."

What about American ship captains and sailors who have cast off on trans-Pacific voyages?

Nelson said the crew of an U.S.-flagged merchant vessel leaving an American port, such as the Port of Seattle, and finding themselves in international waters on April 1 Census Day should be counted at their regular on-shore residences in the United States. Merchant mariners, like all other U.S. residents, have until midsummer to self-respond to the 2020 Census to be counted.

In light of the COVID-19 outbreak, Census Bureau managers have slightly pushed back the end of counting from July 31 to August 14. The agency is still planning to deliver the final population numbers for each state to the president and Congress by the legal deadline of December 31, 2020.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.