0221 Census Technology Concerns

In this Feb. 12, 2020 photo, U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham testifies during a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, on Capitol Hill in Washington. The bureau says it has developed two secure data-collection systems, so that if one goes down during the census count, the other can substitute. Other mechanisms are in place to prevent failure and backup plans in case the worst happens. “All systems are go," Dillingham said.

With the start of the 2020 census less than a month away for most U.S. residents, this year marks the first time people will have three ways to complete it. With the help of technology, census workers will be using a smartphone with an official Census Bureau application to canvass and record the population, according to U.S. Census Bureau New York Regional Director Jeff Behler.

“There are six regions across the country and as the director of the New York Region I cover an area which consists of New England states, New York, New Jersey and Puerto Rico,” Behler said.

Although technology may initially seem like a step in the right direction as a way to increase efficiency, questions are starting to rise about the application’s reliability after the program designed for and used to record the results of the Iowa Democratic caucuses back on Tuesday, Feb. 3 did not function properly, delaying final tallies until two days later. However, Behler said that while nothing is completely foolproof he is confident in the Census Bureau’s new data collection process.

“This year, individuals will have three ways to self register; by mail, by phone and online,” he said. Behler noted that all databases used are secure and have two backup systems in place.

The Census Bureau is wrapping up its recruitment for training at 420,000 people. Training will begin in March and the New York region is preparing to hire and train workers to be ready for canvassing areas where populations have not responded to mail, phone or online. On May 13, workers will begin counting people who haven’t yet participated.

“We are at 395,000 recruited and will hit our goal of recruitment. So we have a good amount to be able to hire as the one we start offering jobs,” he said. “We’re not gonna offer jobs to 420,000. We offer jobs to probably closer to 125,000. Officials and workers are beginning some training right now but March is the beginning of door to door training and we will be ready in time without a doubt for the May 13 date.”

Recruits are presently learning how to gather data from group living situations.

“We have started training classes for our group quarters operations. That’s when we go to jails, military barracks, college dormitories and nursing homes,” Behler said.

According to a Census Bureau handout officials emphasize the importance of completing the census as “responding to the census helps communities get the funding they need and helps businesses make data-driven decisions that grow the economy.

The handout continues: “Census data impacts our daily lives, informing important decisions about funding for services and infrastructure in your community, including health care, senior centers, jobs, political representation, roads, schools, and businesses. More than $675 billion in federal funding flows back to states and local communities each year based on census data.”

According to Behler, the Census Bureau maintains strict confidentiality requirements since 1954, referring to Article 13 of the United States Code.

“We have been taken to court twice to release records and both times Article 13 has held up our mission which is to just count people. We aren’t allowed to do anything but count and we can’t report on anything else. If someone is undocumented we can’t report it. If two families live in a one family apartment we can’t report it,” he said.

In an FAQ document provided by the Census Bureau, officials state that “it is required by law to protect any personal information we collect and keep it strictly confidential. The Census Bureau can only use your answers to produce statistics. In fact, every Census Bureau employee takes an oath to protect your personal information for life. Your answers cannot be used for law enforcement purposes or to determine your personal eligibility for government benefits.”

Behler also said the agency is not connected to immigration agencies.

“By law, your census responses cannot be used against you by any government agency or court in any way — not by the F.B.I., not by the C.I.A., not by the Department of Homeland Security, and not by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” according to the FAQ document. “The law requires the Census Bureau to keep your information confidential and use your responses only to produce statistics.”

The New York regional official also reassured that the census will not be looking at citizenship status.

Behler did say one of the new questions on the 10-question form will be ethnicity and that the 2020 census will also be available in 12 different languages available by phone for people to register.

“If 80 out of 100 people complete the census in a community then they will only get 80% funding in their school for the next 10 years,” Behler said.

The census data is compiled into anonymous statistics focusing not on individuals but on populations that federal funding, business and service agencies need to equip themselves to adequately and effectively serve communities.

“You know, how do you get to work? You have to take roads to get to work or get to the store. If you take mass transit they need funding for those programs based upon an accurate census. We talk about community block development group grants, our parks and things like that for your community,” Behler said.

Hospitals, housing agencies, libraries, police departments and schools are some of the facilities that cannot serve a population without an accurate census.

“It’s not just for Medicaid and Medicare and it’s not for an entitlement program. It’s [about] fixing potholes, bus routes to a community, ensuring there is elderly care or a health care bill, making sure that you have enough fire trucks, police officers or a big enough hospital,” he said.

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