The Census Could Undercount People Who Don’t Have Internet Access

Slate.com has the details:

There has been no shortage of debate about the upcoming census. For weeks, we had a steady stream of “will they or won’t they” as the White House, the courts, and advocates grappled with the addition of a citizenship question on the 2020 census form. But lost in this back-and-forth is another problem that could lead to the undercounting of the population of the United States, which would affect how billions in federal funds are distributed. It involves broadband.

For the first time in our history, the U.S. census will prioritize collecting responses online. In practice, this means that most households will get a letter in the mail directing them to fill out a form on a website. For households that do not respond, letters with paper forms may follow, and a census taker could eventually be sent to collect the data in person. But in light of the effort to increase internet responses, there will be a reduced effort to call on homes, knock on doors, and get responses in the mail. In fact, the Census Bureau has planned to hire 125,000 fewer staff members than during the last go-around 10 years ago, because it is counting on this online effort, in conjunction with local resources, to secure participation.
At first glance, this makes sense. In the digital age, wearing out shoe leather to survey the population seems more than a little antiquated. Plus, a technology-first approach will save scarce resources and better reflects how so many of us live our constantly connected lives. But it also creates a problem for communities without reliable access to broadband.

As a member of the Federal Communications Commission, I know too many Americans lack broadband at home. According to the agency’s official statistics, about 21 million Americans live in areas without high-speed service, the bulk of them in rural areas. However, the situation is worse than official numbers suggest. The method we use to count which households have internet access and which do not has a serious flaw. It assumes that if a single customer can get broadband in a census block, then service must be available throughout the entire block. As a result, official data significantly overstates the presence of broadband nationwide. In fact, a study found that as many as 162 million people across the United States do not use the internet at broadband speeds. The gap between 21 million and 162 million raises big questions about broadband coverage. It turns the digital divide into a chasm.

Continue reading HERE. [Emphasis added]

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