In a new episode of Policy Outsider, guest Nicholas Simons, project coordinator at the Rockefeller Institute of Government, discusses how COVID-19 is affecting the 2020 Census and how the US Census Bureau is adjusting its operations to account for disruptions from the pandemic.

In mid-March, as governments in the US began responding to the emerging threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, households received detailed information from the Census Bureau on how to respond to the 2020 Census. Shortly thereafter, the Census Bureau temporarily suspended its field operations though collection of responses continues online, by mail, and by phone. Approximately 60 percent of households, nationally, have completed the Census. In this episode, Simons shares information on the Census Bureau’s adjusted operations, including new deadlines for self-response and nonresponse follow-up (NRFU) and how extending the timeline for collection efforts will delay the sharing of congressional apportionment counts with states.


Nicholas Simons, Project Coordinator, Rockefeller Institute of Government

  • Transcript

    Transcript was generated using AI software and may contain errors. 

    Nicholas Simons 00:00

    Say you have 100 kids in a class in New York and you only count 75 of them. You’re going to get 75 kids worth of money for education funding from the Census Bureau from the federal government, but you still have to serve 100 kids.

    Alexander Morse 00:10

    That was Nick Simons, project coordinator at the Rockefeller Institute, talking about the importance of a complete census count. Nick has been researching and developing tools to address the challenges of administering the census, and has been featured on several panels, sharing some of the strategies and opportunities to ensure everyone is counted. This is Policy Outsider. I’m your host, Alex Morse. Nick joins us today to discuss how the coronavirus is affecting the census count in New York State and the nation. He will also provide some resources for filling out the census. Next.

    Alexander Morse 01:13

    Nick, thanks for hopping on today.

    Nicholas Simons 01:14

    Thanks for having me, Alex. Happy to be on.

    Alexander Morse 01:17

    Let’s start with a little bit of background on what the census is and why it’s important.

    Nicholas Simons 01:22

    Sure, sure. The census is a decennial count of the population. Decennial is just a big word for every 10 years. It’s written into the Constitution from the very beginning of our nation. I think George Washington from the very beginning was skeptical about how accurate it would be and those concerns have really stuck through today. But the census, like I said, counted the population every 10 years. What it does for us is the census counts and the associated data helps to determine state representation in the US House of Representatives. The data, they’re reported directly to the president and then back to the states, so the states can begin the redistricting process every 10 years. But they’re also used, these data that is, to allocate about $675 billion in federal funds. That’s through a multitude of different programs and these programs impact American lives every day, a few of them Medicaid; federal direct student loans; Medicare Part B; SNAP, which is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; Title I education grants; highway planning and construction and a lot of other infrastructure needs; TANF, which is the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families; CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program; Section 8 housing vouchers; Pell grants at the federal level; school lunch programs, Head Start; special ed grants. So if there’s someone listening out there that doesn’t use or isn’t touched by one of those programs, I’d be surprised. The census funds and, more importantly, the census count to help distribute those funds are important to everyone. It’s also important to think about census data from an academic research and policy purpose, the data on demographics, income, housing, etc. They allow governments and nonprofit agencies to make informed decisions about the communities they serve. It’s important to remember that we live with these numbers, these census counts, for 10 years, for the whole next decade, until there’s another census. We live with these congressional apportionments and distributions of federal funds. It’s incredibly important to get out the count and do so in a fair and accurate way that counts everyone.

    Alexander Morse 03:35

    Judging by what you just said, sounds like the census count is really weaved into so many different opportunities and programs that serve the American people. So what kind of data is the census recording?

    Nicholas Simons 03:48

    A lot of it is pretty minor stuff. It’s actually only 10 questions. A lot of the other intricate census housing and demographic data comes from the American Community Survey, which is something that they do every year, which is surveying a different part of the population. But in terms of the census itself, it’s easy. Its 10 minutes, its 10 questions. They’re not asking you for your social security number. It’s a very straightforward name, address, things like that. I think that you hit the nail on the head when you said that, obviously, everyone’s using these programs. It’s not inherent, I don’t think, in people’s minds how much matters from just this one count. Growing up, it wasn’t drilled into me how many programs are actually affected by the census. I think that once you start to realize the gravity that you yourself have a role in this process and you are one of millions and millions of people being counted that it then becomes more of a civic duty, I think, than anything else.

    Alexander Morse 04:50

    What was New York State doing to prepare for the last 10 years?

    Nicholas Simons 04:54

    This is the question I was most looking forward to because, in my view, advocates groups, the state, everyone was pretty excited about the census, considering they’ve been preparing for it for the past 10 years. I mean, the excitement was more about the potential outcomes, considering that there are large barriers that stood in the way of accurate counts. The 2020 census obviously brings serious concerns surrounding response rates for several different reasons. You have to worry about historically undercounted populations. We’re talking about different populations that are designated by the Census Bureau as hard to count. Something they’ve had trouble with a couple of years after the census ends, they basically released a document saying, “here’s where we overcounted are undercounted a specific group of people. Some of the groups we’re talking about are children under five. In the United States, children under five are not counted nearly as high as other populations. They’re historically undercounted and part of the reason is that people don’t understand that they should be putting newborn babies and very young children on their census form. We’re talking about renters, we’re talking about students who have just moved off campus into a neighborhood and don’t know that they need to fill out the census form for themselves. We’re talking about immigrants, foreign born population, where there might be additional barriers to them filling out the census. Another thing to be concerned about heading into this was the digital divide in the introduction of the online questionnaire, looking at folks who are less comfortable online or folks who have a lack of Internet access is something that New York is really focused on, and trying to assuage any worries about data protection and fraud concerns and things of that nature. Lack of language access for many communities is a big issue. There were significant efforts in New York to target these populations and prepare for an increased skepticism following the threat of adding that citizenship question that was held over everyone’s heads for a long time. Obviously, that didn’t end up being included. But some of the things that New York was doing, one of the biggest ones in my view, one of the biggest efforts was the LUCA effort. That acronym stands for the Local Update of Census Addresses. About 900,000 addresses in New York were added or corrected. Basically, the Census Bureau reaches out to states and says, “here’s the addresses that we have on file, can you double check this for us and either correct the ones that are wrong or add the ones that we’re missing?” New York also undertook a huge expansion of language translation services from what the Bureau traditionally offers. New York offered targeted funding to these hard to count communities that we’re talking about across the state. Not every part of the state is equal. Student renters might be a bigger issue in this part of the state and children under five might be a bigger issue in this part of the state. They were very cognizant of drawing regional differences and county differences, all the way down to the census track and really targeting funding that way. Also New York State encouraged the local complete count committees who know their area best, which are smaller groups of local leaders, community heads that know their community, can get out the count, can put what they call trusted voices into the community, people that are going to doors and saying, “you know, you should really fill out the census.” That’s where the state is most powerful. I know we at Rockefeller helped develop some data tools that ended up being used in the New York State complete count commission report, talking about these low-responding areas and the assets of these communities that could be hardest hit. I think that there was a lot of energy in the lead up, but apart from the state, there were also higher ed institutions who were doing their part, libraries were doing their part, neighborhood associations, many other groups are doing their part, and coordinating as best they could to ensure a fair and accurate count. I think that New York was positioned pretty well before this hammer hit us.

    Alexander Morse 08:43

    So a follow up question is this Coronavirus hammer that hit us, what changes now?

    Nicholas Simons 08:49

    I think the biggest thing is that the Census Bureau understood that they needed to extend their deadlines for the various data collection phases of the census. In early April, the Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and the Census Bureau Director Steve Dillingham issued a joint press release extending their deadlines, but also asking for an extension from Congress to give those final portion counts. As I was saying before, the Census Bureau collects all the data, runs it through the legislature and the president, and then after it’s approved, the federal government will send it back to the states so that it can be used for the redistricting. The Census Bureau extended their deadlines, and I’ll go through step-and-step and talk about what each stage is. But they also temporarily halted their field operations in March as a result of the pandemic. Their new plan is to open up select field offices in May, with the resumption of activities happening shortly afterwards. The Bureau said it ordered PPE, both for field office officials and for folks who will be going door-to-door, and it seems like they’re taking serious precautions but it hasn’t been fleshed out what the enumeration process will look like. For the most part, they’re doing things like increasing call center capacity because you can fill out your census by mail, online, or by phone. I think the biggest part is trying to limit the face-to-face contact of door knocking enumeration, which occurs when people don’t respond by one of those three methods. Then they need to come to your address to confirm that you’re there and get your information. That leads me into the timeline, the self-response phase, which is when you’re prompted to answer online or by phone or by mail, started March 12 and was supposed to end at the end of July. They’ve extended the end of the self-response phase to October 31, rather than July 31. Again, this is your online mail/phone response. That’s why they’ve been hitting people over social media, all their other points of contact that they were trying to exhaust before in terms of getting the information in people’s hands about how they can fill out the census and stuff like that, that will be extended to the end of October. Concurrently, you have what’s called the group quarters process. This is how they count buildings like college dorms, nursing facilities, correctional facilities, treatment centers, military barracks, basically anything where the building that people are living in is not owned by themselves. It’s different from a household or residence, which you would see in that self-response phase. In the group quarters phase, that was originally started in early April and it’s supposed to end in June. They’ve extended that until September. These are mostly administrative data file transfers, where the people that organize those buildings will compile the data for people living there. The military personnel, the folks in correctional facilities, people in college dorms, things like that. I’ll get into college dorms in a second because I think that’s going to change. They will compile that data for the people living there and then send it to the Census Bureau directly without each individual person having to fill out a census form. College dorms is going to be interesting because there’s kids that were sent home from school and parents could have already started filling out census forms while their kids were at school before campuses closed. Those college dorms could already have sent data files with the students to the Census Bureau. It’s possible that issue will work itself out because the way that it’s worded on the census questionnaire is fill out this form for the people that are living in this household for most of the time or the majority of the year, which is usually understood is six months plus. It could get a little interesting there with kids moving between houses and college dorms about where they’re counted. But I know the Census Bureau has a very strong, I think it’s called deduplicating, where if they get two entries for the same person, they have the software to control for that and things of that nature. Self-response phase extended. Group quarters phase is also extended. Nonresponse follow-up phase, that’s the door-to-door enumeration that was slated to start in early May and end in July. Now they’re saying it won’t start until August and it won’t end until October. So again, they’re following basically a three month delayed start for each of these phases. Again, I think the door-to-door knocking enumeration process is the hardest to figure out if you’re the Census Bureau, considering respondents will be more cautious and might not have answered a knock at their front doors in months at this point. The last two things to note is that the apportion counts don’t go to the president until April of next year now. Originally, that was supposed to be December 31, 2020. So again, like four months pushed off before the apportion counts, the new congressional counts, can go to the president for approval. Then they deliver the redistricting counts back to the state, that wasn’t supposed to happen until April of next year. Now, it’s not going to happen until July 31 of next year. The states are not going to get their redistricting counts for the 2020 census until July 31, 2021. You can understand why putting that off and not redrawing districts until a year and a half after the census is complete could be troublesome. That’s where we’re running into issues. These changes are requested in the Heroes Act, which was a bill that was just introduced in the House of Representatives. Approving these adjusted timelines would allow for a more fair count. Rather than a rushed process, I guess, the silver lining could be that if you have more time for all of these phases, you could anticipate a better count than normal because people in the beginning of the process were still filling it out online, by mail, by phone as you normally would and they were getting good responses. Hopefully this can be spun in a positive way. Last thing I’ll say is, I’m interested to see how census jobs are affected because I’m not really talking about the people that are working for the Census Bureau in full-time positions but more about the people who are volunteering or working part-time to be part of the 2020 outreach. Do they still have slots? If not, what will the appetite be for those part-time jobs when the field operations resume August 11? Obviously, this causes a huge impact in many different ways.

    Alexander Morse 14:57

    How do these changes affect New York and what’s the risk?

    Nicholas Simons 15:01

    I think the biggest worry is if there is an undercount and a significant one at that, we could lose congressional seats. They were already worried about an undercount before this happened, New York was preparing for the census as if a global pandemic wasn’t about to hit and there were still large concerns at that point. I think this just doubles the necessity for a fair and accurate count considering it’s a new obstacle. Congressman Paul Tonko tells a good story about this and how it’s easy to understand. Say you have 100 kids in a class in New York and you only count 75 of them, you’re going to get 75 kids worth of money for education funding from the Census Bureau, from the federal government, but you still have to serve 100 kids. It’s imperative for everyone to be counted, not just because you’re being counted is helping the person next to you get the funding and the programs and services that they need, but you’re also helping yourself, and they’re helping you by being counted. It’s a really community-based duty, I think, that we all have. It’s a civic duty, we all have to be counted because we’re all helping each other. In New York, I think that we have a lot of similar concerns that other states around the country do. I mean, we had a lower response rate in 2010 than several other states. I think it was around 65 percent was our final self-response count. Right now we’re at about 53 percent, the US self-response is at 59 percent. You can see that we’re a little bit behind the national average in terms of getting response rate out there. Minnesota ranks number one as a state with 69 percent right now. We do have a little bit of work to do. But like I said, with these extended timelines and pushing it out a little bit, we have a bit more time to get it right. It’s not going to be easy. But, like I said, congressional apportionment can be greatly affected. I would say the silver lining to all this is the switch to the online questionnaire. I mean, it was very timely and has been the primary method of response during this pandemic and it was so before. I think that the impact on New York is a large one. But I think that we prepared for it. I think that some of the things that I outlined at the beginning of the podcast about updating the addresses and getting the language barriers lessened a little bit by adding different cell lines in New York that you could call if the Census Bureau didn’t have the language that you needed to respond in. It put us in a better place than we would have been in for sure. I don’t think those efforts should be ignored just because we are witnessing an unprecedented global pandemic. I think we’re still in a good spot. We just need to see it through appropriately.

    Alexander Morse 17:54

    So let’s help folks see it through, how can people fill out the census?

    Nicholas Simons 17:58

    You can fill it out online, phone, or by mail. All the resources are available at It’ll point you towards the online form. The URL to go directly to the online form is It also offers call-in numbers for different languages that they support. It gives prompts and addresses and relevant information for the mail-in responses. The last thing I would leave you with is what I call the 10-10-10 rule. The census is only 10 questions, it only takes 10 minutes to fill out, and the effects last 10 years. It’s exceedingly important to take that 10 minutes and fill it out for the betterment of yourself, your state, the person next to you, and the country as a whole.

    Alexander Morse 18:47

    Thanks again to Nick Simons for sharing with us the importance of a complete count, how coronavirus is changing operations, and what New York State is doing to respond and achieve a complete count. If you haven’t already, you can do your part by visiting Thanks for listening. Stay well, stay healthy. I’m Alex Morse. Until next time.

    Alexander Morse 19:27

    Policy Outsider is presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York. The Institute conducts cutting edge nonpartisan public policy research and analysis to inform lasting solutions to the challenges facing New York State and the nation. Learn more at or by following RockefellerInst on social media. Have a question, comment, or idea? Email us at [email protected].

Policy Outsider

Policy Outsider” from the Rockefeller Institute of Government takes you outside the halls of power to understand how decisions of law and policy shape our everyday lives.

Listen to a full episode archive on Anchor, or subscribe on your preferred podcast platform.