The push for 2020 Census participation, amid a pandemic and data privacy fears

Groups across Penn are working to ensure that college students and hard-to-reach demographics get counted in the once-a-decade tally.

census report paperwork
In mid-March, homes began receiving paper copies of the 2020 Census and April 1 marked Census Day, the touchpoint traditionally used to determine who gets counted where. If all goes accordingly, the Census Bureau will send counts to Congress and the President by December 2020, then by March 2021, states will receive the population-change data they’ll use for redistricting.

Every 10 years, a count of the U.S. population takes place, and the resulting numbers inform many facets of public life: how many seats in the House of Representatives a state holds, district boundaries, the allocation of public funds. In mid-March, households across the country began receiving the 2020 Census forms—just as the reality of coronavirus started to set in. 

Given the Trump Administration’s ultimately failed effort to include a question about citizenship on the Census, it was already unclear, pre-pandemic, what level of participation this decade’s count would see. Now, the obstacles are even greater, with social distancing requirements delaying or canceling door-to-door visits from Census workers and emptying college campuses of populations normally tallied in those spaces. 

“It’s going to be a challenge to get a complete count this year,” says Penn demographer Irma Elo, who served on the Census Scientific Advisory Committee for six years during preparations for the 2020 Census. 

demographer Irma Elo
Penn demographer Irma Elo (left) served on the Census Scientific Advisory Committee for six years during preparations for the 2020 Census. “It’s going to be a challenge to get a complete count this year,” she says.

A few weeks in, just a third of the U.S. population has responded; in Pennsylvania, that number is 37.5%. For comparison, 74% across the nation and 70.2% in Pennsylvania completed the 2010 Census, but keep in mind, those latter numbers come from a finished process. We’re still early on in the current one, with the Census Bureau and local partners adjusting as they go. 

To that end, for the first time, households can answer surveys online. This was already true for the 2020 Census before coronavirus appeared, but the online option will now stay open for the duration of data collecting. The agency has also made it possible to participate without the ID number on the mailed-out paper form, allowing people to respond using their physical address instead. Though field operations have been postponed several weeks, as of now, they will still happen. 

Beyond those steps, the federal, state, and city governments are working with universities like Penn to make sure students get counted, even from afar. And partnerships such as one between Penn and Philly Counts 2020 are doing their part, too, through activities like a Virtual Census Day, which took place on April 1, the touchpoint traditionally used to determine who gets counted where. 

Counting students

On a typical Census Day, college students are on campus, immersed in classes and other spring semester activities. But the majority of students are now elsewhere, raising questions about how they can still get counted—and accurately—in the national survey. To help, Penn’s Office of Government and Community Affairs (OGCA) recently issued guidance reminding students how to stay civically engaged, even from home.

person typing on a laptop
For the first time, households can fill out the Census online. This was already true for the 2020 Census before coronavirus appeared, but the online option will now stay open for the duration of data collecting.

It’s important and gratifying to do so, says Dawn Deitch, OGCA executive director. “Public officials make hundreds of decisions that affect our lives,” she says. “Census data become the statistical basis for those decisions—the policies, programs, and public spending that shape our nation—and help us determine the representatives who become those decision-makers. The Census is a way for every individual to participate in our democracy.”

For Penn students specifically, what does that mean? Those who had been living in the 12 college houses, Sansom Place, and the 24 University-operated Greek chapter houses needn’t do anything individually; rather they’ll be tallied collectively through something called “Group Quarters Enumeration.” 

“Universities have data on who would have been living in dorms and these other University group quarters on April 1,” says Terri Lipman, assistant dean for community engagement at Penn’s School of Nursing. “Penn will be able to collate those data and share with the Census Bureau.”

The Census is a way for every individual to participate in our democracy. Dawn Deitch, OGCA executive director

For students who lived off campus and have returned home, she adds, “it’s really important to complete the Census based on where they would have been living on April 1, either online or over the phone. Roommates can coordinate completing one survey per household.” Beyond that, their parents should not count them as part of the household where they may now be staying. 

Noncitizens who attend Penn may also participate, following the same criteria: Those who had been living on campus will be counted collectively, and those living off campus can respond individually to the Census, available at Finally, students who had been studying abroad but returned to the U.S. before April 1 should be counted at the place considered their “usual residence,” which, in many cases, means their parents’ house. 

Marginalized populations

Empty college campuses pose one set of challenges toward ensuring a complete Census, one that popped up after COVID-19. But another obstacle existed prior to coronavirus: undercounting difficult-to-reach population subsets. 

“About one-third of Philadelphia’s population is considered the ‘hard-to-count’ demographic,” Lipman says. “Those include the elderly, low-income families, the immigrant community, those experiencing homelessness, and—surprising to me as a pediatric nurse—children younger than 5. In many cases, those who are undercounted could benefit most from an accurate Census.” 

demographer Emilio Parrado
Penn demographer Emilio Parrado, who works closely with Philadelphia’s immigrant populations, worries that such groups—especially undocumented immigrants—will be wary of filling out the form, particularly following the failed Trump Administration attempt to add a citizenship question.

Immigrant populations, particularly undocumented immigrants, are typically wary of filling out the Census, says Penn demographer Emilio Parrado. “They just don’t know what this information is going to be used for, and they’re scared to answer the questions.” The 2019 attempt by the Trump Administration to add a citizenship question to the Census didn’t help matters. 

That effort felt purely political, Parrado says, an unnecessary reinterpretation of how the Census has forever been conducted. “We’ve traditionally counted every resident and made Congressional apportionment and funding allocation decisions based on the number of ‘persons’ not the number of ‘citizens,’” he says. “For immigrants and the local communities that receive them, the idea that they could be excluded from this representation has a chilling effect because it’s another right of recognition that’s being denied.”

In the past, to counter the fears these groups might experience, trusted community members and organizations like churches would become grassroots educators, explaining the importance of being counted and how the results could touch individuals on a personal level. Now that education must all happen remotely. 

“You can’t have information sessions and get-out-the count rallies in communities to explain how to fill out the Census form and why it is important to do so, or have trusted organizations and community leaders participate,” Elo says. “We are limited by the COVID-19 pandemic, so now what can be done?” 

Picking up the slack

The question is hard to answer, but a group of Penn Nursing students hopes to play a small part. Since 2014, Lipman has mentored a student-run initiative called Community Champions that pairs undergraduates with under-resourced West Philadelphia communities. The aim is to focus on the health and wellness of these partners. 

In February, a number of Community Champions also became Census Champions through a training directed by Philly Counts 2020, an initiative started by Mayor Jim Kenney in 2019, which also trained other nursing students, faculty, and staff. 

“The goal was that our students, who were already engaged with and trusted by undercounted populations, would continue their usual community engagement initiatives, and in addition, would talk with community members about the importance of the Census and how it relates to health,” Lipman says. For about a month, that’s what happened. Then the situation with COVID-19 worsened, suspending the in-person community engagement.

The work, however, didn’t stop, culminating in participation of Philadelphia’s Virtual Census Day. On April 1, the School of Nursing took to Twitter and Instagram to encourage people to fill out their surveys, and the student Census Champions took part in Philly Counts’s telephone bank. “They’re making calls all over the area to educate the community on the importance of completing the Census,” Lipman says. 

As an institution, Penn has been involved in Philly Counts 2020 in other ways, too, working with higher education outlets across the city to brainstorm ways to reach hard-to-count groups and to inform and engage students in what is likely their first Census experience. 

The outcome of such efforts may not emerge for at least another year. The Census Bureau doesn’t send counts to Congress and the President until December 2020, and states won’t receive the population-change data they’ll use to redistrict until the end of March 2021. 

Nonetheless, any attempt to increase participation is worthwhile, Parrado says. Only once in history—the 1920 Census—were the data not used to reapportion seats in the House, the process having been derailed by politicians who felt it wasn’t in their interest to let it happen. Parrado and Elo agree there’s a chance this Census could result in similarly unhelpful data.

“There has been a longstanding position that you cannot touch the Census numbers once they’re collected, that you cannot revisit them,” Parrado says. “We’re going to have to see what happens. There could be a serious undercount of the population, especially immigrants, minorities, young people, children. If that happens, we’re not going to have good data to serve the population.” Elo adds that lawsuits are likely if the Census count looks incomplete.

Yet there are bright spots amid the uncertainty and social distancing. More people are physically at home to receive the paper forms and complete the online surveys. And the Penn Community Champions are more motivated than ever. “The nursing students are disappointed that they’re no longer directly engaged with communities,” Lipman says, “but they remain committed to staying connected and providing support.”

Dawn Deitch is executive director of the Office of Government and Community Affairs at the University of Pennsylvania.

Irma Elo is chair of the Department of Sociology in the School of Arts and Sciences and a Research Associate at the Population Studies Center and the Population Aging Research Center at the University of Pennsylvania

Terri Lipman is the Miriam Stirl Endowed Term Professor of Nutrition, a professor of nursing of children, and assistant dean for community engagement at the School of Nursing at the University of Pennsylvania.

Emilio Parrado is the Dorothy Swaine Thomas Professor of Sociology and director of the Population Studies Center at the University of Pennsylvania

Homepage image: Nearly three-quarters of the U.S. population completed the 2010 Census. It’s unclear how the coronavirus and the current Administration will affect this year's once-in-a-decade tally.