Take Note: Penn State Prof. Jenny Van Hook On Coronavirus And The Census

May 22, 2020

Jenny Van Hook is the Roy C. Buck Professor of Sociology and Demography at Penn State and a former member of the Census Advisory Board.
Credit Jenny Van Hook

The COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. intensified just as the 2020 Census was getting underway in earnest. As Americans fill their days with news about the new coronavirus, the Census Bureau is doing everything it can to spread the word about completing the Census online while grappling with how to do critical in-person follow up during a time of social distancing. As our guest this week explains, the consequences of an undercount directly impact public health in significant ways.

Jenny Van Hook is the Roy C. Buck Professor of Sociology and Demography at Penn State and a former member of the Census Advisory Board. She was an expert witness in the legal fight over the efforts to add a citizenship question to this year’s Census.

This interview is from the Democracy Works podcast, a collaboration between WPSU and the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. The Institute's Jenna Spinelle interviewed Van Hook. 

They recorded this interview on March 31, the day before Census Day. There’s still time to complete your Census online at 2020census.gov.

 

This interview was recorded on March 31, 2020. 

TRANSCRIPTION: 

Jenna Spinelle: 

This is Jenna Spinelle here today with Jenny Van Hook. Jenny, welcome back to Democracy Works.

Jenny Van Hook:           

Thank you so much.

Jenna Spinelle:              

You were on our show, Jenny, about two years ago. Jeez, time flies. We talked then about kind of some of the history and background of the census. The citizenship question was big on everyone's mind at that point in time back in the spring of 2018.

But something else that we talked about quite a bit was the Census Bureau preparedness or their ability to carry out the census from a staffing perspective, from a general preparedness perspective. And I thought we might start there. Putting aside coronavirus for a second, how are you feeling about the Bureau's ability, their preparedness to carry out the census when the process got started at the beginning of this year?

Jenny Van Hook:           

At the beginning of this year, before all the issues and disruptions, people were already concerned about the census. And especially about the capacity of the census to encourage people to respond and to self-respond so that we can get a full count.

Jenna Spinelle:              

Right. And so how has that response rate been? I know this is the first year for online completion. How has that been so far, and how does the response rate thus far in 2020 compare to the census historically?

Jenny Van Hook:           

Well, there's a really important phase of the census collection called the self-response phase. And that is when people, they get a postcard in the mail, and then they are asked to respond either online or by phone or by mail. And so you have a variety of ways that you can respond. And then if you turn in your response on your own, that would be called a self-response. And so there's a lot at stake at getting a high percentage of people to respond in that manner, because that really determines the cost and the accuracy of the data that's being collected.        

So so far right now, I just checked this morning (on March 31, 2020), and 35% of US households have already self-responded. But, this is only halfway there. In 2010, by the time all was said and done 70% of the US households had self-responded. So we still have a long way to go on that.

Jenna Spinelle:              

The Census Bureau strikes me as a place that has like a plan A, a plan B, a plan C, D, E, all the way down the line. So are there contingencies in place? I mean, not maybe specifically for a pandemic that we have now. But are there plans in place to adapt to changing social or other factors that might be happening during the counting process?

Jenny Van Hook:           

Yeah. I mean, they do develop contingency plans for all kinds of things. But they did not develop a contingency plan for a pandemic specifically. And so those adjustments are being made now on the fly as we speak. So there's a lot of the adjustments being made because they had anticipated, for example, have been able to do all of this sort of outreach to get people to respond and be aware of the census. And many of those outreach functions have had to be canceled because of this. They also planned a pretty large and robust non-response follow-up operation. And that was supposed to have gone out and started pretty soon. But it's being set back. And that's the operation where people really do come out and knock on doors, ask people to respond to the census.

Jenna Spinelle:              

Speaking of that kind of timeline, you were saying that the in-person outreach is going to be delayed. And so, will that also ultimately push the timing of when the final count is completed and delivered? Or is that staying on track?

Jenny Van Hook:           

That for now is staying on track. So they're trying to stick to their original deadlines for that. So they have to get a final count to the president by December 31st of this year. And that is as far as I understand it still the target date. (This deadline has now been extended to April 31, 2021.)

Jenna Spinelle:              

I mean, is that feasible do you think? Or are there issues that that brings about trying to condense the final phase of things into a shorter timeline like that?

Jenny Van Hook:           

Well, that's just the concern, right? I mean, the concern is that some aspects of the non-response follow-up operation will be not done as thoroughly, rushed. They're going to have to perhaps not follow up on a household that they might have followed up before because they didn’t have time. And so yeah. Just reducing the amount of time provided that they are able to conduct this operation could in the end jeopardize the final counts there. And the census doesn't even end at the end of the non-response follow-up, because after that then there's a whole nother series of kinds of edits and data cleaning that occurs.

Jenna Spinelle:              

Yeah. And I mean, I wonder too with having such a high online response rate this time, if that might cut down on the processing time or how everything is kind of cleaned up in the end. I mean, you don't have to necessarily enter something from a written response. It's all just kind of there, I'm sure, in some database somewhere, to extremely over-simplify how the process works, I'm sure.

Jenny Van Hook:           

Yeah. Yeah, I mean, that's the other thing, is like there's these new modes of data collection occurring at the same time. And those are meant to improve our data quality and to improve the ease at which people can respond. And so hopefully that all works out in the end. And so what we really want to make sure is that in the efforts to improve the operations, the novelty of it doesn't throw another wrench into the process. Because we don't need any more wrenches at this point.

Jenna Spinelle:              

Yeah. I mean, on the one hand, people have ostensibly more time than ever to do this, because a good number of people are at home. But at the same time, I imagine it's harder than ever to kind of get the word out and fight through the noise of all of the coronavirus news and remind folks that, hey, the census is still here. It's something that still needs to happen and all of those sorts of things.

Jenny Van Hook:           

Yeah. I mean, I think they were hoping to have a little more airtime in which the census would be the primary focus of people's attention. And that's just really hard to make happen right now.

Jenna Spinelle:              

Right. So another group I want to talk about is college students. I know a lot of our listeners are college instructors or in some way involved with universities. And that's a whole other wrench in the process as well, because college students are not on campus right now, but yet they should be counted as if they were, is that right?

Jenny Van Hook:           

Correct. That is correct. So you should be counted where you live and sleep most of the time as of April 1st. But if you're temporarily living somewhere else because of the COVID-19 situation, then you still have to count yourself as where you usually live. And for students, this means that they should be counted at school, even if they're living somewhere else. Like in the home of their parents.

Jenna Spinelle:              

Is it possible to in any way make up for the lack of student response or kind of the disparity between where students would normally be on April 1st and where they are right now? Is it possible to use university enrollment data or something like that to make up for that in some way?

Jenny Van Hook:           

My understanding is that for many students who live in dormitories, that the census was to be conducted through other means other than self-response of the students themselves. And so they would be working with the university to get those counts from the institutions. So if that's the case, I can definitely see how this is going to work out really pretty well. And there's room then for some oversight, right, in terms of where they're being counted. If they're counted in the wrong place because of the self-response of the students themselves and there's no other process to move them back to campus, so to speak, then I can imagine that maybe later on down the road the municipalities or cities can then contest the results of their census counts. And certainly that has happened in the past where there's been adjustments after the fact.

Jenna Spinelle:              

So what other groups do you think are kind of top of mind for the bureau right now in terms of people that need extra outreach or they need to pay special attention to, given our circumstances right now with the coronavirus?

Jenny Van Hook:           

Well, it's certainly people who are displaced. So I think that's the number one group of people. So anybody who's being displaced because of the coronavirus. So we talked about students already. But there are other groups of people who are also displaced from their regular places of residence. Certainly I don't know if you've read, but people from New York moving to their second homes. That would be one example. People who are visiting relatives during this time because that's their preference. So there certainly are a lot of people in that situation, I think.

Jenna Spinelle:              

Right. So I think we talked about this the last time you were on the show, but it bears repeating. What are some of the consequences or the ramifications of an under count or a miscount of the census?

Jenny Van Hook:           

Okay. So the census is used… like one of the major uses of the census is to determine apportionment of the House of Representatives. And so if you have displaced populations living in other states, then those counts could be off. And the apportionment then could be off, perhaps. Maybe even more importantly is the redistricting that occurs where you have determinations of the locations and boundaries of Congressional districts. And again, that's based on population numbers, estimates from the census. So yeah, so there's a lot of political ramifications if these counts are either too low or maybe even too high in some cases, or counted in the wrong place.

Jenna Spinelle:              

Sure. And picking up on the idea of apportionment for a second. I know that the count's not in yet, but are there projections out there right now about which states may gain seats, which states may lose them, how all that balance is going to shake out?

Jenny Van Hook:           

Yeah. There's a number of projections out there right now. So like for example, one of the big ones, the big winners this time could be Texas. It's expected to gain about three seats. And that's quite a large shift of congressional representatives, right?

Jenna Spinelle:              

So Texas is one of the big winners, so to speak, or kind of the biggest gains. There's been lots of talk, particularly since 2016 about kind of the Rust Belt states, Pennsylvania where we are, Ohio, Michigan. How are those states going to be fare?

Jenny Van Hook:           

Yeah. Those states are all projected to either not change or lose seats. And that's just a nature of a stagnant population or even a declining population in some cases.

Jenna Spinelle:              

Yeah. There's the kind of the combination of a lower birth rate plus an aging population plus people moving out and not coming back. There's all kinds of factors that go into that.

Jenny Van Hook:           

Exactly. So Pennsylvania, you might not know this, but Pennsylvania is the state with the second oldest population in the country. Only second to Florida. And a lot of that has to do with aging populations in areas where young people leave town and maybe they, when they go to college or go to seek work, and not return. And then they end up raising children elsewhere, outside of the state.

Jenna Spinelle:              

Yeah. And we're seeing some states try some pretty inventive things to get younger people to stay or to maybe move there for the first time. I know like Vermont and maybe New Hampshire were offering student loan forgiveness at one point. I've seen other things. Cities are trying with housing and, yeah, all kinds of things.

Jenny Van Hook:           

Yeah. I think one of the things that really helps is a strong set of opportunities for people to find employment and strong schools. Having good schools is attractive to people with young, growing families.

Jenna Spinelle:              

And is that tied at all, to bring the census back in, how does the census relate to public education? Like is it tied to funding or anything, something that would go into making like a quote unquote “good school”?

Jenny Van Hook:           

Yeah, no. Of course. Yeah. Education is only one of the many, many, many kind of resources that are distributed either within states across communities, or across the nation from the federal down to the state and community levels. So there's just billions and billions of dollars that are distributed as a result of the information that's provided in the census. So if a community is under counted, if the number of children in the county are under counted, then they may receive less federal and state funds because of that. Less funds than they should have received.

Jenna Spinelle:              

Right. And of course, public health is in the news a lot these days. Are there public health funds or public health implications tied in with the census count?

Jenny Van Hook:           

Yeah. I mean, the one example that I was thinking of just this week was that I just saw an article recently about the distribution of ventilators. And so that must be on the top of everybody's minds. And the capacity of hospitals to take in sick patients in their ICUs. So the number of hospital beds available in ICUs or in general are based on a set of plans that are in turn based on the size and the age of the population in the area. And so how do we know that information? That doesn't just come down from the sky, but it actually is something that's based on these decennial census counts.

And so if we don't get those numbers correctly, then we could have a mismatch between the demand and need for those kinds of services, even in the absence of a coronavirus epidemic. We could have a mismatch between resources and need.

Jenna Spinelle:              

So we've kind of touched on this sporadically as we've been talking. But can you just lay out, moving forward, what the rest of the census timeline looks?

Jenny Van Hook:           

So in late April and really ramping up in May, we're going to have a series of ... this non-response follow-up operation will start to move forward in full force. So during that time, people can still self-respond. I believe they can still self-respond up through August. But there's also going to be this overlapping time where census employees will be going door to door to people who have not responded. And elicit responses from them. If that's not successful, then eventually the census starts to turn to other sources for this information. So they can at least fill in the gaps of what they don't know about a household.

So for example, they could draw that information from the neighbors. They could also go to administrative or third party data on this, like utility records and tax records, for that matter. So there's just a lot of resources that the census can use to fill in the gaps when households are not responsive.

Jenna Spinelle:              

And to kind of come all the way back around to where we started with kind of support for the census from the administration. I know that that was very much kind of questioned the last time you and I talked, about how much support was the commerce department giving the census. It seemed like not very much at the time. But I mean, do you have any sense of kind of where that is now and has what's happening with the coronavirus changed anything about how much support the census has?

Jenny Van Hook:           

I'm not sure what people are saying in the administration about this. I do know that if you talk to people at the Census Bureau, they feel like they're fighting fires on all sides and that the coronavirus is just one more thing. I've read several editorials saying, "Oh, we're going to have to do a census redo." And I just, I don't know how realistic that is to call it quits and say, "Well, it's been a failure. We're going to have to have a 2021 census." I think it's somewhat of a joke right now. But we'll see what happens in the fall when we start to see the evaluations at the census, and just what really did happen. And there will be an evaluation, and that evaluation will be apparent ... We'll have a really good sense of how well it worked by December, I believe.

Jenna Spinelle:              

Well, yeah. Because if you have, like you could technically complete the process. But if it's data that no one can trust or isn't reliable and you have to wonder how good it even is or whether it should ... kind of what that balance is between all the energy and the money and the effort to redo it versus 10 years of using it and living with a count that's not accurate or not reliable.

Jenny Van Hook:           

Yeah. So that's what some of the pundits have been arguing saying, "No, we cannot accept this. We need to actually have a redo." Another opinion that I've seen out there is that we need to rely even more heavily on administrative records and have sort of an administrative records census to help us understand how large our population is.

Jenna Spinelle:              

Yeah. And is there, I mean, thinking like really longterm here, I mean is there any thought among kind of the census or demography community of… could you ever envision a census or the process happening in which self-participation was not part of it?

Jenny Van Hook:           

Yeah. I mean, that's certainly something that people have been talking about quite a lot lately. And it just comes as a fact of life is that people are less responsive to surveys now than they've ever been. And it's harder and more expensive than it used to be to get a household to respond to the census. And so the easier that you can make it, the less that you depend on people's actions to make it happen, as opposed to it just being something that we tick off because, yeah, we know from the utility records or tax records that these people live here. That's certainly that's something that's being discussed a lot.

Jenna Spinelle:              

Yeah. I mean, but there is kind of that trade off, though, of the civic engagement part of it. And maybe that's just not as strong today as it once was, or maybe that energy, to the extent that it still exists, needs to be channeled somewhere else or kind of thought of in a different way.

Jenny Van Hook:           

Yeah. Yeah. You know, I don't know if it's like we have less civil engagement than before, and maybe the political scientists would want to weigh in on this one. I tend to think that it's because our time is so divided and there's just so much marketing that is occurring every day. And in terms of the mail that we get in our mailboxes and in our inboxes for email. And people are stopping their landlines because the vast majority of the calls they receive are from marketers. And so it's really hard for a legitimate survey or questionnaire like the census to cut through that and get people to take time and take them seriously. And so it may not be about civic engagement as opposed to just having divided attention.

Jenna Spinelle:              

Right. Right. Yeah. And just so many things coming at us. It's easier to tune out and to ignore things that you don't want to see. Do you know at all, and I realize you might not, anything about how the census is being viewed from a partisan perspective?

Jenny Van Hook:           

The Republican National Party had put out some flyers that looked very much like a census form but wasn't. And I think they even used the word “census” in it to solicit information from people and getting them to respond to something that was not the census. And that was stopped. And they're not going to do that anymore. But for a while there, there was that out there. And I think that just sows confusion on the parts of people in terms of maybe they filled that out and thought, "Yeah, I answered the census," and actually they hadn't.

Jenna Spinelle:              

Right. They just gave their information to a campaign, which may or may not have been what they wanted to do in the first place. And it makes them less likely to fill out the actual census.

Jenny Van Hook:           

Yeah. And I don't think there's a huge amount of enthusiasm for trying to get a full count from all prats of the political distribution. But it's hard for me to get inside their minds on this, because people kind of know what to say as opposed to what they do.

Jenna Spinelle:              

There was a scam floating around on social media about how you needed to fill out your census to get your stimulus check from the government. Just for the record, those things are completely unrelated, correct?

Jenny Van Hook:           

Yes. Yes. That's true. It should be unrelated. Yeah.

Jenna Spinelle:              

Okay. So our last episode, as I mentioned, we were talking about voting by mail. And one of the things that our guest brought up was that everybody, like the candidates and the campaigns are kind of lawyering up right now because they're expecting the November's election to be more contested because of all these changes to the process. I mean, is there a parallel there with the census? Is it something that people would go to court to contest the results or not? Other than what you talked about earlier with people having data to verify a miscount or something like that?

Jenny Van Hook:           

No. Those efforts are well underway already. So there are teams of lawyers already working on this and getting ready to sue so that they can contest counts. Of course we don't know what those counts are yet, but they're basing that on contingency plans. Like if the count comes in below X, then they're going to be contesting it. So they're getting ready for it.

Jenna Spinelle:              

In the kind of midst of the coronavirus and everything that comes with that, what is the best argument from your perspective for why we should continue with the census this year? I mean, is it because it would be unconstitutional not to? Or what are your thoughts in that regard?

Jenny Van Hook:           

It is in the Constitution that it should be done every decade. I would be concerned if we didn't do it this year and at least saw what the results were before assuming that we're going to either do a redo or just disregard the results. And I would be concerned that if it isn't done this year and if it was delayed too long, there could be other concerns about the legality of the census. You know what I mean? Like if it wasn't done according to the rules.

Jenna Spinelle:              

Jenny, thank you for all of your work in this area. And thanks for joining us today.

Jenny Van Hook:           

Thank you. It was fun.