Thursday, May 30, 2024



Digital first census unlikely to impact response rate, says Stephanie Reid of Complete Count 2020. But it may impact census jobs

A KEYSPOT computer lab. (Photo via May 30, 2019 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose
“We don’t need to panic; we just need a plan,” said Stephanie Reid, the executive director of Complete Count 2020.

Together with 243 committee members on 19 subcommittees, Reid hopes to work with nonprofit and civic organizations, community leaders, and others to educate Philadelphians on the importance of replying to the census. This year is the first year the census will take a “digital first” approach, although people can still reply by mail or by phone.

“We will work very closely with the Census Bureau,” Reid said. “We’ll know [if there’s] a low response census track.” That’s where coalition building will come into play, according to Reid. Leaders from communities with low response rates will be activated to help guarantee folks understand the importance of the census and fill it out.

Because the approach is digital first and not “digital only,” the online format doesn’t strike Reid as contributing to an undercount of any population. And according to data from the Census Bureau’s 2018 End-to-End Census Test, when mailings presented an internet first approach (i.e., did not include a census questionnaire), 70% of respondents opted to reply online. However, if the mailing include the paper form, 61% of respondents replied by mail. Clearly, participants in the test overwhelmingly responded online if it was presented as the preferred option in the first mailing. In a separate area, a digital approach may increase efficiency. If a follow up by a census taker is required, the 2018 test concluded that enumerators with iPhones worked 48.5% faster to complete cases than they did with paper forms in 2010.

Just like the 2018 test, the 2020 census will send out five mailings to remind those selected to reply and the fourth mailing will include the paper form. (The earlier one fills out the census, the less mailings will get sent to your address!) Respondents can reply online, by mail, or by phone. There will also be census offices where census employees can assist — although there will be about half of the number of offices that there was in 2010.

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But what about census jobs?

While the census itself will be digital first and allow replies by mail or by phone, getting a job with the census will be “digital only.”

“Historically, you could walk into a census office and fill out a paper form,” Reid said. “This time it’s all online and there are parts of the onboarding and training that’s all online.” This is potentially problematic for the city as Philadelphia was the only city among the largest 25 American cities to see broadband usage decline since 2016. In 2018, Philadelphia’s Internet penetration rate is about 72%, so access to the internet would hypothetically present challenges for about 1 in 4 Philadelphians who may pursue a census job.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau 2013-2017 American Community Survey, the areas where residents would be more likely to struggle to meet the online requirements include eight areas listed in the below chart, as they all share high rates (40%+) of households without internet access. Nicetown-Tioga leads the pack with 56% of households lacking internet access (including smartphones) followed by Fairhill with 53%. (Notably, from 2013 to 2017, Nicetown-Tioga saw its median household income drop 37.5% and the Fairhill neighborhood has the highest poverty rate of the city at 61%.) While not an exact 1:1 correlation, the rate of households without smartphones or Internet access seems to follow the poverty rate for the top eight neighborhoods:

Additionally, among seniors, smartphone and internet access correlates strongly with income. According to Pew, only 27% of seniors with an income of $30,000 or less have a smartphone or Internet access in their home. So the senior citizens who may most need the extra income would be the least likely to have access to the online application. Clearly, a Philadelphia resident’s household income and subsequently their likelihood to have Internet access will impact their ability to apply for an complete the training for a Census Bureau temporary employee position.

Luckily for residents who lack smartphones or internet access (and as previously reported by Generocity and, the Digital Literacy Alliance is focusing on the 2020 census as the sole subject area for grant funding to combat this Internet access gap. Reid also emphasized that Complete Count is already looking for holes in Internet access to make sure everyone is not only able to fill out the census online but so they can also fulfill the requirements of having a job with the Census Bureau. She also stressed the importance of the Census Bureau hiring folks from the community in which they will work.

According to Reid, making sure that happens will require working with the KEYSPOT network, libraries, CareerLink, community based organizations, computer labs at recreation centers, and more to establish a map of locations where residents can apply for the job and keep up with the training requirements online. “Over the summer, we will have an intern…pull together one map so we can see all the computer labs that would be available,” Reid shared. The goal would be to see if they have holes missing and then working to fill those holes.


If a church, nonprofit organization, or other community organization would like to join that effort to make sure census jobs and the census itself is more accessible to all Philadelphian residents, simply email to be added to the list!


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