PROVIDENCE, R.I. – The success of the 2020 census, which will be the first to include an online survey, could hinge on a single “dress rehearsal” underway right now in Rhode Island – and so far, many locals aren’t impressed.
Providence County, the state’s most populous, is the only place where the Census Bureau is running a full test, after plans to test two other sites this year were canceled because of a lack of funding from Congress. A planned question about citizenship that has states suing the federal government isn’t on the test.
Several elected officials and leaders of advocacy and community groups this week held an “emergency press conference” to raise concerns, which include a shortage of publicity around the test and its limited language outreach in an immigrant-heavy county, with large communities from countries including the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Portugal and Cape Verde.
“If we don’t get it right here, then the country’s not going to get it right,” Democratic Lt. Gov. Dan McKee warned.
The concerns in Rhode Island are the latest evidence of mounting apprehension over the 2020 census. Seventeen states and six cities, including Rhode Island and its largest city, Providence, sued the federal government on Tuesday to block a question the administration of Republican President Donald Trump announced last month it would ask about citizenship.
The 2020 census will be the first to give respondents the option of answering online. Census Bureau officials say that the Rhode Island test is on track, and that they’re focused on ensuring new technology works, including a smartphone app being used by canvassers and cloud computing.
“There’s things that aren’t exactly the way they need to be. But we’re learning that; we’re making the changes on the fly,” said Jeff Behler, a regional Census Bureau director who is overseeing the test. “We’re getting some very critical information about changes that we need to make. And we have time to do that.”
In the test, which began March 16, 280,000 homes in Providence County are receiving snail-mail letters that direct residents to a survey website or toll-free phone number. There, they can complete the survey, which includes questions including about age, race and ethnicity.
People may also call to get a paper version of the census sent to them, but census officials hope most will do it online because it is less expensive.
A response is legally required. Those who don’t respond on their own will get a personal visit, with door-knocking scheduled through July, Behler said. Census workers who visit homes will use a new smartphone app, instead of paper forms, to enter information they collect in person.
The test survey does not include any question on citizenship, having begun several days before the Trump administration’s announcement that it was adding that question, although many people received the letters telling them to take their census around the time the announcement was made.
Entities that use census data worry about including a question on the census without testing it first.
“Adding a question at this late stage of the Census process does not allow time for adequate testing to incorporate new questions, particularly if the testing reveals substantial problems,” the American Statistical Association wrote in a January letter to the federal government.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said he added the citizenship question at the request of the Justice Department to provide a more accurate tally of the number of voting-eligible residents in each neighborhood. Many Democratic officials and advocacy groups fear the question will scare people away from participating because they view the Trump administration as hostile to immigrants, diminishing the survey’s overall accuracy.
Many Republican officials have downplayed such concerns, instead echoing the Trump administration’s assertion that there is no empirical evidence pointing to a steep participation decline. The Rhode Island test would have to be repeated – the second time with a citizenship question at the end – to gauge whether there is a decrease in participation, but there are no plans to do that.
Even aside from the citizenship question, critics say they worry residents will ignore the test requests because they don’t know what they are or because they fear how the government will use the information. And they worry a test with a lot of problems will ripple into the nationwide census two years from now.
Funding shortages mean the testing has been scaled back significantly from original plans, including two canceled 2018 tests in West Virginia and Washington state, as well as two field tests that were canceled in 2017. Plans for the census bureau to run an ad campaign and other outreach for the Rhode Island test were also canceled for lack of funding.
“At this time 10 years ago, there were five fully funded, end-to-end tests around the country,” said Gabriela Domenzain, director of the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University in Providence. “Today there is one underfunded. The census will fail. The pilot is failing.”
Community leaders point out that the region has a large immigrant population but that the official-looking two-page government letter came only in English, along with a short flyer that offered help completing it, with one sentence each in eight other languages.
“The confusion around the census and the fear around it, we’re afraid, is going to dissuade people from filling it out,” said Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza. “I don’t know what’s in their minds, but it sure seems that if you’re trying to be strategic and sandbag this process, that you would do exactly what they’re doing.”
As of Monday, more than 43,000 households in the county of about 630,000 residents had responded to the test, a 15 percent response rate, Census Bureau spokeswoman Kristina Barrett said. That figure is in line with expectations at this point in the test, she said. Eighty-seven percent of respondents had done so online.
At the bustling Carolina Family Restaurant in Providence on Friday, which serves up Dominican fare, one patron said she received the letter and completed it online; another said she got it and planned to do it. But five other county residents said they knew nothing about it.
“I don’t really watch the news,” said Anthony Gomez, 29, of Providence. “It’s depressing.”
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