Pandemic, privacy rules add to worries over 2020 census accuracy

Pandemic, privacy rules add to worries over 2020 census accuracy

An accurate census requires good data in and good data out. With the 2020 census, the US has unprecedented challenges with both, from the ill-timed pandemic and from new rules designed to keep data anonymous.

Qian Cai

The pandemic made it harder to collect census responses, contributing to worries over accuracy.


Kena Benakur/AFP via Getty Images


For the Census Bureau, the timing of national shutdowns due to the pandemic could not have been much worse.

Stay-at-home orders in March coincided with the period when millions of Americans received their census questionnaires in the mail. But large numbers of Americans moved from where they normally live to somewhere else — in with relatives with spare rooms, back home from college or even released from prisons. These highly unusual circumstances are likely to result in failures to count, double-counting or counting in the wrong place portions of the population.

Disruption from the pandemic adds to existing worries around the accuracy of this year’s census data, including the introduction of a technique to protect residents’ privacy and a potentially low response rate stemming from distrust in the government.

I am a demographer working with local governments, businesses and nonprofits, and this combination of factors makes me deeply concerned about how accurate census data will be when it’s released in 2021.

Communities rely on accurate data for a range of essential services, whether it’s determining the needs for hospital beds and vaccine doses, social programs for seniors or the unemployed, or evaluating wide-ranging health, economic and social impacts of the pandemic.

Good data in

People who work with statistics know that there needs to be “good data in” in order to get “good data out.” In the context of the census, good data in means “counting everyone once, only once, and in the right place.” The decennial census gathers data from every household in the nation to accomplish this enormous undertaking.

People are supposed to report where they were living on April 1. Yet, many left their usual residences to move in with parents, adult children, other relatives or friends; some fled to second homes; nearly 20 million college students vacated dorms or apartments; tens of thousands of inmates were granted early release; and nursing homes experienced high death rates from COVID-19, leading to no responses from deceased people who should have been counted on April 1.

The pandemic led the US Census Bureau to extend the deadline for gathering data from July to October. Prolonging the census-taking period may generate confusion about where and how people should be counted. This may introduce an increased number of recollection errors, diminishing data accuracy.

Further, Census Bureau field operations suspended in late March, and only recently resumed a gradual reengagement. In August, census takers will begin to knock on the doors of about one-third of the households nationwide that have not answered the census. But it may be harder to get complete and accurate information this year if people are reluctant to speak with census takers in person over health and safety concerns around the pandemic.

Finally, the Trump administration’s positions on immigration may further depress participation or distort results. Nearly 14% of the US population is foreign-born, and more than 80% of the foreign-born are racial/ethnic minorities from Latin America, Asia and Africa, according to my calculations from the Census Bureau’s latest American Community Survey data. The administration’s proposed citizenship question was eventually scrapped from the 2020 census, but in its place, Trump signed an executive order to collect information about citizenship status through other means. Fear remains, not only among immigrants and their families but also among naturalized as well as US-born citizens with immigrant parents. This, in addition to the announcement of a plan to close US borders in late April because of the pandemic, sent unsettling signals and may further diminish census participation.

In short, both pandemic and policy-related forces threaten the goal of getting good data in.

Good data out

“Good data out” means that the data collected by the census is carefully processed and truthfully reported. Census results are the benchmark for federal, state and local data and the gold standard for what we can know about the country’s residents.

The Census Bureau is obligated to prioritize both data accuracy and individual privacy protection. In order to achieve near-absolute privacy protection, the bureau is implementing a new data processing measure called “differential privacy,” which distorts community data including age, gender, race/ethnicity, relationship, family type, homeownership, household size and vacancy rate. By reporting numbers that are distorted, the technique is designed to make it harder to identify specific individuals, particularly by combining census data with other sources of information.

National and state totals will be reported accurately, which is critical for congressional apportionment. But the process of shuffling data to protect privacy at county, city and town levels as well as among different age or racial groups means the data will be incoherent or even erroneous.

Bad data will have bad consequences. For example, next year when health officials use the fresh census data to determine COVID-19 death rates among the African American population, they need to divide the total number of deaths of African Americans from COVID-19 in a given jurisdiction by the total African American population there. Because of differential privacy, the denominator with the local African American population from the census will not be accurate, and as a result, there could be wildly inconsistent or even implausible results.

Census Bureau officials have said that injecting “noise” into the data is needed to ensure privacy and that the technique gives data scientists a good understanding of the level of uncertainty in the data. But other researchers have shown differential privacy to be ill-suited, harmful, untested and unproven.

Similar to an athletic team’s record bearing an asterisk marking a sullied season, the 2020 census will bear the unfortunate impact of the pandemic. Much is beyond the Census Bureau’s control, but this decennial census will also carry a second asterisk, due to Census Bureau decisions to trade data accuracy for privacy.

Qian Cai is Research Director of the Demographics Research Group, University of Virginia. This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to unlocking ideas from academia, under a Creative Commons license.

HorseShoe Gang – Homeless Life (4 Brothers Album) letras

[Intro: Julius Luciano]
It’s hard to estimate the nation’s homeless population
So we shouldn’t add them into the equation
That’s what people think
See we shouldn’t wait for the Census Bureau to acknowledge them
We a part of them
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link
Before we reach the brink of destruction, we can reach an understanding
At least I’m wishing we would
Its aight, I’m a bum too
By which i mean B.U.M
A Brother Unfairly Misunderstood

[Verse 1: Julius Luciano]
Yo, where I’m from the have-nots feel like refugees
With no refuge, I’m trapped, who’s gonna rescue me
All of my life I’ve been caught in this fight
I’m in a boxing ring, no referee
As a child I was homeless, wait let me strike a scene
Eleven years old, been in these scary streets for weeks
With one parent, my family portrait never been complete
I’m asking every pedestrian to spare some sympathy
They stare as if I reek of excrement
They speak so arrogant and keep
Their distance as if they can’t bare the stench of me
They scared as if I reach, and steal their shit
But I’m innocent. Never been a thief
Can’t spare a cent to me
Embarrassment’s the least of my concerns
What to do now?
Me and my family stuck on the ground
Stomach is starting to rumble and growl
Clenching it tight to muffle the sound
Starting to feel like a stray dog
But at least they get picked up by the pound
Down on my luck, no luck to be found
I pray to God, looking up in the clouds

[Hook 1: Julius Luciano]
A young nigga with no place to go, and you can see I’m homeless
Switch the "m" for a "p", and now I’m hopeless
I’m losin’ my mind
How will I focus?
Where will I go?
Where will I go?
Feels like I’m walking round aimlessly
I’m so lost, feels like I’ve lost days of sleep
As I fall, to my knees, somebody pray for me
O woah
Where will I go?
Where will I go?

[Verse 2: Kenny Siegel]
In case you wonder why I don’t mind stunting
A skeeting for an hour has been a long time coming
I was a little nigga, who was homeless
Who’s empty pockets needed a fill-up
But I wasn’t approached by a Drummond
Live or cats got killed for kicks and bass
Nope not drumming
Talking low-tops and coke rocks from know-nots dumbing
.45 busting
Wasn’t old enough to go job-hunting
Standing 4’5" hustling
Picture that like camera-men
Our society is garbage
If home is where the heart is
This is why I’m heartless
This is why I’m starving
Flashbacks of raindrops drizzling while your dark bitch
Sitting by the park bench
Like this is my apartment
This is why my bars sick
Their darker than the tar-pit
I should feel like I’m carsick
From so much drive, fuck them haters who mouth-run
Failure is an option, not just a possible outcome

[Hook 1: Julius Luciano]
A young nigga with no place to go, and you can see I’m homeless
Switch the "m" for a "p", and now I’m hopeless
I’m losin’ my mind
How will I focus?
Where will I go?
Where will I go?
Feels like I’m walking round aimlessly
I’m so lost, feels like I’ve lost days of sleep
As I fall, to my knees, somebody pray for me
O woah
Where will I go?
Where will I go?

[Verse 3: Demetrius Capone]
Ok. This is real talk shit
Sleeping on the park bench
Starving as darkness falls
And we all kids
Talking to God, saying we drowning
Where’s our ship?
Noah’s Ark departed without us
Now we got this hardship
No apartment, car, or house
And now my savage heart gets
Darker than the darkness
Now this cat is heartless
I’m praying for some brighter days so I can talk shit
I’m waiting on my father’s grave so I can hauk spit
All of my aunts disowned us
And now we all alone plus
They called the law on us
To throw us off in a foster home
Cuz we never had a home to call our own
But y’all can go suck our fucking dicks you fucking bitches
Now that we all are grown up
I’m trying to buy a house and a childhood
Ask me for a handout, I wish thou would
If you ain’t been through what I been through, then I don’t trust you
If you ain’t struggled, then hustled, nigga fuck you

[Hook 2: Kobe]
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
Our father, who are in heaven
Hope you hear me, man these streets are crazy, yeah
Our father, hope you hear me
I know you see me
Man this is all I got, okay?
This is all I got, okay?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

[Verse 4: Andrew ‘Dice’ Dinero]
I’m from a place where enemies keep Glocks exploding
So I burn beef like pots without non-stick coating
Watch the profit you clock, or your guap get stolen
Protect yourself at all time, I don’t mean cops and Trojans
Cops patrolling and raiding shit
Niggas without electricity get it turned on themselves, Raiden shit
You gotta have a strong will to escape the shit
Cause success is related to Will, like Jaden Smith
I’m married now, the hustle-games’ my bitch
Dedication is the anchor that holds down a relationship
I told her ‘You Belong With Me’, Taylor Swift
Persistence is a virtue, like patience is
My niggas trying to get major rich, selling green plants
Selling out the Garden, like when major teams play the Knicks
I’m from where niggas end up in jail or the morgue
Fallen soldiers live by, and fell by the sword
Them hammers hit everything except nails through a board
People hollering bout college, but you’ll (Yale) get ignored
Hustler’s got no Focus, so to hell with a Ford
People pushing whips, you wonder who the hell could afford
More souls get sold than Hell could afford
Cops watching everything, but fail to record
Police brutality, these streets is Amity-Ville
I see calamity, what I speak is actually real
I’m speaking candidly, I need a piece of sanity
But I’m trying to feed my fam, even if people have to be killed
Real recognize real if you don’t seem familiar
If the truth hurts, then what I speak will kill ya
Life is hard, in fact, damn right unfair
But I’m a winner nigga, damn right fuck yeah
I’m living like I don’t have one care
But I’m a stay drawn until I’m roommates with the Man upstairs
Kobe sing

[Hook 1: Julius Luciano]
A young nigga with no place to go, and you can see I’m homeless
Switch the "m" for a "p", and now I’m hopeless
I’m losin’ my mind
How will I focus?
Where will I go?
Where will I go?
Feels like I’m walking round aimlessly
I’m so lost, feels like I’ve lost days of sleep
As I fall, to my knees, somebody pray for me
O woah
Where will I go?
Where will I go?