Census Invitations Aim to Reduce Suspicion, Improve Response

The first digital U.S. Census has not been without its stumbling blocks. Privacy concerns, scams and other issues have proved to be substantial obstacles for census workers and the agency leading the charge.

by Chris Hubbuch, The Wisconsin State Journal / March 10, 2020

(TNS) — Nearly all Wisconsin households will begin receiving invitations this week to participate in the 2020 Census, even as the federal government strains to hire enough census workers and warns of online tampering.

This is the first time in its 230-year history that the constitutionally mandated count — used to divvy up everything from seats in the House to billions in federal funding — will be conducted primarily over the Internet, a move the Census Bureau says will save taxpayer money.

The effort is expected to cost more than $15 billion, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Last week the bureau released sample copies of the invitations — being mailed to 95% of all U.S. households — in order to give people an idea what to expect and to help them avoid scams.

With the exception of one Madison neighborhood, all Dane County households will be asked to use the Internet, although the invitation includes a phone number for those who need help.

Letters will invite the head of each household to visit the website my2020census.gov, where they will be asked some basic questions about the size and type of their residence along with the name, age, gender and ethnicity of everyone living in the home as of April 1.

Each letter will include a unique 12-digit number used to access the online questionnaire.

Those in the area bordered by South Gammon Road, Whitney Way, Mineral Point Road and Schroeder Road are among the roughly 22% of all households that will also receive a paper questionnaire, which is being sent to areas the Census Bureau considers less likely to respond online.

Bilingual invitations will be sent to neighborhoods where at least one-fifth of residents speak Spanish.

Mailed invitations are expected to arrive between Thursday and March 20. All households will receive a reminder letter between March 16 and March 24.

Those who do not respond will receive additional reminders, paper forms, phone calls and — if necessary — an in-person visit from a census taker.

Census workers will hand-deliver invitations in some remote areas and transitory communities, while the bureau works with local administrators to gather information on people living in dormitories, nursing homes, prisons and other "group quarters."

The GAO in 2017 put the 2020 Census on its list of highest-risk government projects, citing concerns about staffing levels and cybersecurity in light of the bureau's new reliance on the Internet.

In a report released last month, the GAO said the bureau had made progress but had more work to do. In particular, the GAO cited missed milestones for recruiting workers and community partners as well as testing its online collection systems.

The GAO found that in addition to hacking threats, the operation is vulnerable to online disinformation campaigns that could undermine public trust in the security of respondents' personal information. Those findings generated concern among members of a House oversight committee, according to The Washington Post.

The Census Bureau says it will use encryption to protect data as it's submitted and immediately wipe data from mobile devices used by census takers in the field. Federal law bars the census from sharing personal information, even with other government agencies.

The agency also said it will never send unsolicited email messages or request Social Security, credit card or bank account numbers.

Despite offering wages of up to $24 an hour in parts of Wisconsin, the Census Bureau was struggling this winter to meet its recruitment goals amid historically low jobless rates.

The problem was especially acute in high-employment areas such as Dane County.

An interactive website showing county-level recruiting progress was replaced last week with one listing estimates of how many people were needed in each of four regions of the state.

That was disappointing for members of Madison's Complete Count Committee, which had made a concerted effort to highlight local job opportunities, said committee adviser Ben Zellers.

Census spokesman Robert Giblin said the bureau had received about 88.5% of its target applications as of Monday, but still needed 6,773 statewide.

"We still have a couple of areas that are hurting, and one of them is Dane County," he said.

©2020 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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