The U.S. Constitution mandates a census of the population every 10 years (Title 13 of the U.S. Code). As such, the goal of the 2020 Census was to count everyone who lived in the U.S. on April 1, 2020. Households were requested to respond to the census online, by phone or by mail. The data is critical to the future of communities, and used to distribute $1.5 trillion a year in federal funds for health care, housing programs, lunch programs, disaster recovery initiatives, roads, education, etc. Additionally, the census data is used to determine congressional district representation (apportionment) for the next 10 years. While several million questionnaires are returned by mail, several million are not. Therefore, the U.S. Census Bureau (“Bureau”) attempts to account for every household address that has not responded to the questionnaire.
2020 RESPONSE RATE
According to the Bureau, as of October 15th, over 99.9% of addresses nationwide were accounted for in the 2020 census. 66.9% responded online, by phone, or mail. 33% of the addresses were accounted for through the Nonresponse Follow-up operation (census enumerators, proxy respondents and administrative records).
I recently met Jim Wolak, who first became a census enumerator for a 1985 Arizona special census. The experience must have been a good one, because he took on the role as an enumerator again for the 2020 Census, assigned to visit addresses in Eugene, Springfield and Florence. I asked Jim to share his experience for our SGS blog.
In August, Jim completed training in Eugene, with an additional 12 hours online. Unlike his previous census work in Arizona when the paper form questionnaire was used, he was issued an IPhone this time around. Utilizing the device, workday assignments were downloaded to him, census form questions displayed on the phone, and household responses were entered directly into the IPhone. For each interview, upon completion of the last question, the data is uploaded automatically to the Bureau. Jim stated residents are asked the same questions that appear on the census form sent to all households. He added that the enumerator only collects data for the assigned address. Therefore, his initial question to whoever answers the door is to confirm the address is a match to his daily assignment. If the address is not a match, or if the address ”appears vacant” he enters a designated code into the IPhone and does not pursue the interview. If there is no answer, a form is left with an 800 number for the resident to reply. The address is then coded into his phone, and returns to the ‘pool’ of non-response addresses. Jim stated he does not revisit an address unless it again appears on his work assignment.
I inquired as to who is included in the count, and he explained everyone in a household is counted who lived at that address on April 1, 2020 – family, friends, and anyone who rents space in the home. According to Jim, the length of stay of a ‘guest’ is irrelevant – the criteria is simply, if they were present on April 1.
Another role of the enumerator is to explain to the person being interviewed that the response information is kept confidential. The Census Bureau is bound by federal law to protect the information, and use of the data is only for statistical purposes. In addition to protecting the data, the answers cannot be used against the respondent by any government agency or court. (Title 13, U.S. Code).
Jim explained a proxy is sought when the enumerator is unable to obtain a response directly from a household. In that situation, he would attempt to obtain a proxy response for the address, such as a neighbor, landlord or apartment manager. According to the Bureau, as of October 15th, approximately 24.1% of occupied households for the Nonresponse Follow-up addresses were accounted for by proxy response. Jim Wolak stated he recorded less than 10% of proxy interview responses for the 2020 census.
THE 72 YEAR RULE
After 72 years have passed, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is responsible for making the records available for public viewing. (Title 44, U.S. Code). Therefore, records from the 1950 census will be released in April, 2022.
For the most part, Jim found respondents to be familiar with the importance of the census and how the data impacts funding for the community. Many expressed appreciation for his collection efforts. For those unclear as to the purpose of his visit, he took the time to provide an explanation. The duration of each interview was about 10 minutes maximum, which he felt to be sufficient. While he admits to having the door “slammed in his face” on one occasion, and did encounter some who refused to participate in the census (less than 10%), he does not recall anyone expressing a fear or suspicion of responding. One person began the interview, but refused to proceed when prompted with census question #4 (phone number request).
The closing date for the 2020 census responses was not without its controversy, and even made its way to the Supreme Court. In the end, October 15th marked the end of self-response and field data collection operations. According to the Bureau, paper responses postmarked by October 15th and received at the processing center no later than October 22 would be counted. Jim stated all addresses in our area were accounted for by the October 15th deadline.
Census records are a key genealogical source for those of us researching family history, and enumerators play a vital role in allowing us to pursue this passion. We are grateful to Jim Wolak and all enumerators for their diligence and efforts in taking on this job.