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UCLA faculty speak on why fewer people may be responding to 2020 US census

The COVID-19 pandemic and changing attitudes toward the census have caused less people to respond to the 2020 United States census, according to UCLA faculty. (Jintak Han/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Lily Flick

May 25, 2020 9:23 p.m.

Less people are responding to the 2020 United States census because of the coronavirus pandemic and changing attitudes toward the census, according to UCLA faculty.

Participation in the 2020 census is 11% lower than in the 2010 census as of April 30, according to a university press release.

Shelter-in-place mandates are contributing to the lagging response rate for the census, said Paul Ong, research professor at the Luskin School of Public Affairs and director of the UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge who led the analysis, in the press release.

The self-response period of the census, when the American public could answer the census via mail and online responses, began March 12, coinciding with the social isolation and distancing restrictions that began in mid-March.

COVID-19 is making it difficult for the U.S. Census Bureau to conduct outreach efforts, such as door-to-door campaigning, in communities that are harder to reach via email or phone, said Chris Tilly, a professor of urban planning at UCLA.

However, Tilly also said he believes the COVID-19 pandemic is not the only culprit behind the lack of response to the census.

The American public may be worried their census responses will be used against them by government agencies, may not understand the benefits of the census or may be overloaded with other economic concerns such as paying for food and rent during the pandemic, Tilly said.

The U.S. Census Bureau designated April 1 as Census Day to advertise the census to collect more responses, but it did not draw a substantial amount of media coverage and was less effective than intended, Ong said.

The U.S. Census Bureau has also allowed people to submit census forms digitally for the first time, to protect the health and safety of its employees and the American public because of COVID-19, according to the 2020 U.S. Census Bureau website.

However, limited internet access may also be contributing to the lack of responses, said Donald Treiman, a distinguished professor emeritus of the sociology department and faculty associate of the California Center for Population Research.

Digitally submitting forms may be more convenient than mail-in ballots, however, there is a significant population that does not have access to, or is not comfortable using the internet to submit responses, Treiman said.

Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, Wasserman dean and professor at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, said the census is a necessary tool for allocating resources and funding to inhabitants and is important to uphold U.S. democracy.

Since the pandemic is largely affecting marginalized communities, Suárez-Orozco said he thinks the census is more important than ever in order to provide adequate assistance to those who are struggling.

Suárez-Orozco added that he believes there needs to be an educational campaign to underline the importance of the census, especially during times when an accurate count of the population is essential.

“We need to educate the public on the urgent importance of participating, of being counted, of being heard,” Suárez-Orozco said. “That is the heart of the democratic order.”

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