Census Workers Raise Concerns About Data Quality, With Bureau Leaning on Records Rather Than in-Person Counts
Census workers raise concerns about data quality, with bureau leaning on records rather than in-person counts
This story was originally published by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more at revealnews.org and subscribe to the Reveal podcast, produced with PRX, at revealnews.org/podcast.
Now, Census Bureau workers from across the country claim that efforts to speed up and streamline the count generated major confusion – and, in some areas, may have reduced data quality.
The long-term ramifications of faulty data could be profound: Inaccurate numbers from the decennial census could affect funding for cities, counties and states – and determine how many seats each state gets in the House of Representatives. Historically, undercounts among communities of color, renters and other groups have meant these communities don’t receive their fair share of resources for programs such as Head Start, food stamps and Medicaid and face a loss of political representation. The census means money and power.
Census workers have told Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting that the bureau closed cases abruptly and without clear explanation, swapping in data from existing government records for the gold standards self-response or in-person enumeration. They also said operational standards fell by the wayside as the count’s completion deadline jerked back and forth to deliver the apportionment numbers on President Donald Trump’s desired timeline.
Since on-the-ground enumeration efforts concluded in mid-October, the bureau has repeatedly pushed back the proposed release date for its first set of results. According to reporting from NPR, the deadline has drifted from Dec. 31 to March 6 – and may be delayed further yet. Along the way, the bureau has released vague statements about “anomalies” in its data, but has provided few details about the scope of the problems or what caused them.
There are, however, abundant clues in the stories of workers on the ground, in more than 150 responses to Reveal’s ongoing survey seeking census workers’ experiences.
‘Suddenly, the rug was pulled out from under us’
The Census Bureau’s 2019 Detailed Operational Plan, released in July 2019, outlined several measures aimed at reducing staff workload during 2020’s nonresponse followup stage – the period when census workers, known as enumerators, knock on doors of households that have not yet responded to the paper, phone or online questionnaire. Among these measures was a new procedure called administrative records modeling, which employed a combination of IRS, Medicare and other government data to count housing units and clear cases from enumerators’ workloads after they’d conducted a single visit – not the standard six attempts. According to Census Bureau policies, self-response produces the best data and in-person enumeration produces information whose quality far surpasses data gleaned from administrative records.
The bureau anticipated that tapping administrative records would make workers’ jobs easier, cutting the nonresponse followup case workload by an estimated 12.9%. But on the ground, it perplexed and frustrated workers, who saw hundreds of cases closed before their eyes in large batches – even as they believed in-person visits were still possible.
In a whistleblower complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Inspector General in November, Baltimore field supervisor Amanda Colianni alleged that thousands of cases in her area were “miscategorized as ‘completed’ … when in reality only one attempt had been made to visit those addresses and no information was garnered,” according to a synopsis from the Office of Inspector General.
On her view of the database that supervisors can access, Colianni claimed that she could see when a given household was attempted once by an enumerator and could see the enumerator’s notes. Then at 11 p.m., the system would end nightly processing and she would see the case resolved due to “Max Attempts w/o pop count.” Maximum attempts would typically mean six.
The Census Bureau’s employee relations branch dismissed Colianni’s claims, maintaining that cases being removed after one failed enumeration attempt was “part of the program” and attributed her concerns to “a misunderstanding of why these cases were removed.”
Yet Colianni insists that the bureau leaned on administrative records too heavily – and too soon in the process. She witnessed cases resolved using administrative records that she and her team of enumerators could – and should – have continued visiting in person, she said.
“We definitely felt like we had done a lot of legwork on some of these cases to get better answers,” Colianni told Reveal. “And then suddenly, the rug was pulled out from under us when we noticed that they were mysteriously marked completed. We’d wasted time and didn’t understand why.”