In-depth on the U.S. Census, how pandemic changes process, and challenge of rural broadband access

– By Gabriel Pietrorazio

The year of 2020 is one full of many firsts, especially for the U.S. Census, and Jeff Behler, the New York regional director outlined the unprecedented steps that are being taken amid the COVID-19 global pandemic.

Four options to count for this year’s census, three of which are self-responses.

Two of the three self-response methods are new first-timers for 2020.

In 2010, the Internet had not been optimized to service the Census, but with the start of a new decade the technology has finally caught-up, allowing residents to safely submit their personal information online or even over the phone, which is another new feature for this year.

“As you mentioned, first time ever, every household across the nation, if they choose, can go online at 2020 census.gov and fill out their 2020 Census formatted for smartphones or tablets, as well as laptops and desktop computers. Also, for the first time ever, a household can call one of our toll-free telephone numbers and give their information over the phone available in English and 12 non-English languages,” Behler told FingerLakes1.com.

Third, residents can submit all of the necessary information by the traditional means in a written paper document that gets delivered through their mailboxes from the U.S. Postal Service in the form of a questionnaire, which gets mailed back.

In contrast, knocking on doors has been temporary suspended due to safety concerns regarding the spread of coronavirus in communities across the state.

“So even though we’re in this COVID-19 phase where we can’t do things in public, we’re not going to knock on doors. You know, we were supposed to start today, believe it or not, May 13th start knocking on doors, but we can’t do that because it’s not safe to do so,” Behler said.

Still, in the absence of physical interactions at households, technological advances are carrying the difference during this year’s census gathering.

Behler acknowledges the significance in fostering communal partnerships among trusted voices from within these same communities to remind residents why the Census matters.

“So we’re trying to focus on those opportunities to get people to either go online, call it in over the phone, or fill it out on paper and how it’s really changed the game in 2020 is that we had partners such as libraries that were planning events that bring community members in because the library is a trusted place where trusted voices, you know, people go there for validation for education, that they could ask questions and then sit down on one of the computer terminals and fill out the census; same thing with churches or community-based organizations. That’s where this technology has really helped us. It allowed our partners while they had to put it that temporarily suspended it allowed them to basically plan some really cool things to make it easy for their community members to fill out their 2020 census,” Behler explained.

With the switch to submitting private information online via the Internet, Behler assures that the systems have been tested and are in fact safe for all users amid the rising concerns over cybersecurity attacks nationwide.

Beyond the hardware, the legal statute of Title 13 prevents any information gathered from the census to get publicly disseminated and connected to any individual or household, according to Behler.

“So, in other words, when we release our data, it’s at a county level or a city level or a town level or census tract level. It can never be at a person or household level. Local state and federal law enforcement can never access our data at any time for any reason that includes Homeland Security, that includes ICE they can never access our data. Even the Patriot Act does not supersede Title 13. Everyone who works on a census myself included, someone works for four weeks on a short term operation. They take an oath of confidentiality, meaning if they were to release information that would identify an individual or household, they will be fined up to $250,000 in prison for up to five years,” Behler shared.

The purpose of imposing these thorough precautions is a simple answer for Behler: to maintain the public’s trust, which serves at the core of completing an accurate census count.

This decision to shift to the digital has not been one made in haste. Instead, the idea had been premediated upon years ahead of the federally managed website ever going active.

“We want what people understand the census is safe throughout the decade because we knew we were going to an online, a lot of the funding that we received throughout the decade was used towards ensuring the systems we created were safe to the public. Basically, as soon as someone enters their data, it’s immediately scrambled, you know, so if someone tried to its encrypted, someone tried to take it, you know that they would get scrambled data. We store the data on our own internal servers. We it’s not a third party. It’s not outside our firewall. We keep that data and only very few people have access to the data: people who have a need to know,” he stated.

Even Behler does not access to the collected data, and in his prominent role as the New York Regional Director, he carries this responsibility seriously, consciously reminding everyone how cautious the 2020 Census is acting this year while implementing the new technologies. 

“I don’t have a need to know. You know, so it’s important that people understand we really are doing taking every precaution to ensure that the data they provide to us is protected as soon as it’s entered into the system, as well as if we’re collecting it ourselves. It’s being collected by federal employees that are sworn for life to protect that that particular data,” Behler emphasized.

Expect Door-to-Door Mailing Delays, and an Extension Request

In the case of Upstate New York, dispersing paper forms brings forth its own set of unique challenges within rural communities.

At some residences where PO Boxes are listed, the Census will only deliver the paperwork to the households – and because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this strategic operation has been drastically hampered, placing teams behind schedule in the region.

“So, we had an operation that we do in Upstate New York, because Upstate New York has a lot of some of the more rural areas, maybe there’s only PO Box delivery. In other words, they’re not receiving mail at their physical address. We don’t mail to PO Boxes because PO Boxes aren’t really tied to a physical address. We will only send our materials to a physical location. So in those areas, we hand deliver the questionnaire packages, the invitation packages that include your URL where to go online, your census ID, the list of toll free telephone numbers, if you want to call it in, and then a paper form with a return envelope,” Behler said.

Census workers started entering neighborhoods across the Finger Lakes to deliver paper forms by hand to each household on Sunday, March 15th, and their operations were halted a mere two days later.

In that short span of time, Behler estimates that workers reached only about 10 percent of the total number of households in the Finger Lakes and rest of Upstate.

“We started that operation on March 15th. We stopped two days later. So, we’re roughly 10 percent of the of the way through. So, there’s households throughout Upstate New York and then the Finger Lakes region, who have yet to receive their census invitation,” Behler shared.

While in person door-to-door deliveries have been put on-hold, Behler notes that their employees shall resume bringing the invitations to residents, which are contingently based on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s state orders.

“As he starts to open up areas, we’re going to follow suit and hopefully be able to kind of following his lead, open up areas so that we can start hand delivering these packages again, knocking on doors. We’ve kind of shifted that schedule to later in the calendar year,” he stated.

This disruption has caused for the Census to request for statutory relief from the mandated date under Title 13.

December 31st is the deadline for the 2020 Census to issue the total apportionment counts, which are then directly relayed to the President of the United States.

Although the extension has not been granted yet, it requires the support of Congress in the form of a vote.

If approved, the vote would allow for a 120-day extension of the original apportionment deadline, setting the schedule back until the month of April in 2021.

“Under law, we have to give that by December 31st, 2020. We’ve asked for a 120 day delay, basically pushing that into April of 2021, which in turn is allows us to delay a lot of our field components the stuff we need to do in communities based upon that proposed schedule must be approved by Congress, we would start knocking on doors August 11th, of 2020,” Behler said.

Lost in the Void: Lacking Rural Broadband Services

With the growing reliance upon online digital resources for self-submissions, Behler admits that census officials have not explored the possibility of expanding rural broadband services at the state or federal level.

“We certainly understand that just because it’s available online, there’s households as you mentioned, that don’t have internet access or maybe they don’t want to use their cell phone to fill out the census. Part of what we were doing and some of the things we had to suspend. We have a program in which we bring technology to communities. So, we’re going to work with partners, and we’re hopeful we’re going to be able to do this in the coming months, once restrictions are lifted, as long as we do it in a way that protects our employees as well as the public. We want to make sure they’re their safety is top concern. But you know, we have iPads and we were planning to bring those to communities,” Behler said.

Local libraries are filling a void in rural communities across the Finger Lakes and Upstate altogether, according to Behler.

Currently, the libraries are hosting social media events in an effort to increase self-response rates throughout the region.

At these facilities, strategic partners are promoting residents to fill-out the census while using their Wi-Fi hotspots, when they are actually open to the public.

Since the libraries are not opening yet, their full potential has been hindered due to the closures statewide. 

“It’s their choices that they’ll be able to do but our partners have been amazing at finding ways to bring technology, whether it’s Wi-Fi hotspots, or different things like that. It’s all in the plans that they had, until unfortunately COVID-19 kind of temporarily suspended those plans,” Behler mentioned.

Hiring for the Largest Peacetime Operation During a Pandemic

Long story short, jobs are still available to work on this year’s census collection. At $20 an hour, potential employees would start working under the presumed start-date of Tuesday, August 11th, through the month of September until the end of October.

While staffing is still open, Behler realizes that the pandemic has possibly changed the minds of employees who sought to participate in the largest peacetime operation which comes around only once every decade due to the health risks while being in public, especially for the elderly and retired.

“So, jobs are still available, and we certainly understand there’s many people who have applied for census jobs that may no longer be interested because of COVID-19 and maybe they’re scared of going out into the community and knocking on their neighbor’s doors and asking questions,” he stated.

As a result, Behler explains that their hiring and training procedures have changed ahead of eventually reentering the field.

“So, we’ve changed a couple things. We changed the way in which we train people. We don’t bring people together anymore in a classroom to do training. We do it virtually, where we’ve given PPE to all our employees so that when they do start delivering, maybe in a few weeks when they start delivering those invitation packages, they’ll have masks on, we’ll have sanitizer and they’ll be practicing social distancing,” Behler continued.

Tracking Real-Time: 2020 Census Response Rate Mapper

In his own words, Behler considers the early real-time figures from the 2020 Census response rate mapper as “fantastic,” especially given the current circumstances.

While New York State has dragged behind in comparison to the rest of the nation in their national average, and in some cases even the state’s average when comparing rural communities in the Finger Lakes to both of these rates, Behler believes these numbers show that the 2020 Census is bringing people together, albeit virtually.

“Now, New York State as a whole was behind the national average, some communities in Upstate New York are behind the national average are behind the state average. But it’s amazing what they’ve done given the ability you take probably one of the most important components out of a census, and that’s the ability to bring people together, to educate them to motivate them and then to give them the opportunities to complete the census,” Behler emphasized.

As for our region, Behler is impressed with the current numbers reported in real-time, according to the 2020 Census response rate mapper.

As of May 13th, Monroe County already received 61.4 percent of its Census submissions, Genesee County at 58.9 percent, Seneca County with 50.7 percent, Ontario County at 53.4 percent, Yates County with 44.4 percent, and Wayne County at 23.7 percent.

In the meantime, Behler urges residents to fill-out the census information online or over the phone ahead of their offices sending out employees for household visits come August.

The more self-submissions made, this means the less amount of work left to be completed by 2020 Census staffers, according to Behler, which also lowers the risks for employees on their end as well.

“We have to hand deliver invitation packages. There’s a lot of households in the Finger Lakes region who haven’t got that invitation package yet, and we’re hopeful that once it’s safe to do so when we start that process, that those residents will fill it out whether they go online or call it over the phone or fill out the paper form and mail it back in and increase some of these rates so that once we get to August 11th, or we have to start knocking on doors. Hopefully, these self-response rates are much higher. That’s fewer doors we’re going to need to knock on and the concern from the public during that time,” Behler said.

Hopefully, Behler believes that census officials are anticipating to restart the campaign in August, but nothing is certain yet.

“But basically, under that schedule, we would start knocking on doors by August 11th and then that would continue through the end of October. Again, assuming it was safe to do so. So, that’s what we’re staffing towards,” he said.

Still, this projected schedule is contingent upon the lifting of New York State restrictions, specifically NY on PAUSE and other stay at home orders.

While the projected timeline remains uncertain, Behler believes that its possible for his office to move faster on this front.

“I mean, it’s certainly possible that we start earlier, if things progress quicker, and we have the ability to bring staff on board, we have the devices ready that to give, we have the ability to train people virtually, it’s just a matter of making the job offers and getting those people to come on board. So, we’re excited about it,” Behler stated.

At the same time, it’s also possible that their timeline gets pushed back even further past the August 11th start-date, which would hamper the proposed schedule.

However, Behler ensures that safety is simply at the top of his priority list, above the census and its findings.

“Yeah, I mean, I guess anything’s technically on the table as of now. You know, if it’s deemed not safe to start knocking on doors and sending people in the communities on August 11. We won’t do that. That’s something that our director has stressed from day one, that the health and the safety of the public, as well as the health and the safety of our employees is of utmost importance. So, we’re not going to go into any community if there’s a restriction in place and violate any, you know, statewide or local guidance or restrictions that have been put there,” he continued.

Hindsight is 2020: Already Looking Ahead to 2030

Lessons are being learned in real-time throughout this unprecedented process, according to Behler.

Behler expressed that he learned this project could not be accomplished without the partnership of local trusted voices within these communities that inspire residents to actively participate in the census, even now amid a global pandemic that has disrupted the daily lives of all.

“I think the you know, one of the things that that that certainly resonates with me is the work of our partners. And you know why even though the census, it’s the largest peacetime national event that we conduct in order to be successful, it has to conducted at the local level, we have to work and I would tell anyone who runs a census, you have to work with the local trusted voices, whether that’s elected officials, the media, community-based organization leaders, faith-based leaders, teachers, doctors, and business owners, all the above. You have to work with them to really understand their communities. They’re the trusted voice at the end of the day. I don’t want to be the one talking about how important the census is. I want them to talk about it, because it means so much more. When they’re saying it to their community members, they’re the people that their community goes to for validation or for education. And just seeing the work of these partners when it would have been easy to hit the pause button when COVID-19 came out… When they could have hit the pause button, they’ve completely re-engineered what they were planning to do,” Behler explained.

Even though the 2020 Census is far from over and rather just barely started, lessons are already being accrued as Behler looks ahead to 2030, and a team currently preparing for the next census now.

But Behler assures that this moment while balancing a response to COVID-19 while completing the 2020 Census shall stick around in his mind for many years to come.

“Looking at some of the results of 2020 I definitely cannot foresee a future census that doesn’t involve data collection over the Internet. I think that is a huge success, and it just opens up the doors for opportunities for different communities. Granted, we may be providing the resources to them in order to do it, but I think that’s a wonderful opportunity that we’ve learned,” he said.

In addition, Behler believes that strategizing procedures for a pandemic may become a necessity moving forward by proactively pursuing preventative backup plans in the event of future outbreaks.

“You know, also in 2030, I think we’re going to have to now start thinking of things like pandemics when we plan and how we can really shift resources around,” he added.

Tune in to watch or listen to the full conversation on Inside the FLX, which will air Monday, May 24th.


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