The Digital Divide Could Exacerbate the Census Undercount
By Livia Luan and Raima Roy
For the first time in the history of the decennial census, the Census Bureau will encourage most people to fill out the form online. This policy change will modernize the census and make it more accessible to households that enjoy higher incomes and broadband internet connection, but it might leave other, more vulnerable households in the dark. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel voiced this concern last year, pointing out that “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.”
Although the FCC suggests that approximately 21 million Americans live in areas without high-speed service, Commissioner Rosenworcel highlights a critical flaw in the agency’s methodology: “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, the accuracy of the data is dubious, especially in light of a Microsoft study that found that as many as 162.8 million people are not using the internet at broadband speeds — a result that aligns well with the FCC’s broadband subscription data, which is distinct from its broadband access data and a better measure of who actually has access to broadband than whether someone lives in an area with high-speed service available, and Pew Research Center’s numbers.
People who are less likely to have broadband internet service at home belong to society’s most underserved populations, including people of color, older adults, rural residents, and people with lower incomes and educational attainment rates. Unfortunately, these populations are also the most likely to be undercounted — or missed — in the decennial census.
The stakes are extremely high for them — if undercounted, they will be denied a voice in the policy decision-making process and crucial resources for their states and localities, communities and families. The census is a vital tool that is used to distribute more than $1.5 trillion annually in federal funding for hospitals, schools, roads, libraries, and more. Census data are also used to draw district lines and to decide how many representatives a state will receive based on its population. Furthermore, census data are instrumental to the enforcement of voting rights and the process of determining which states need language resources at the polls.
Counting the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Community
Ensuring that the AANHPI community is counted in the 2020 Census represents a unique challenge. Today, roughly one in five Asian Americans and one in three NHPIs live in hard-to-count areas, and AANHPIs who are especially at risk of being undercounted include those who are low-income and/or limited English proficient (LEP). According to messaging research conducted by Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC through an online survey, 55% of AANHPIs have not heard anything about the 2020 Census. In addition, less than half of our community knows that every person living in the United States is supposed to be counted by the census, regardless of their immigration status. Moreover, awareness of the upcoming census varies by ethnicity — lowest among Japanese Americans and highest among Indian Americans and Korean Americans.
Given that the 2020 Census will be conducted primarily online and much of the outreach regarding it is occurring on social media, it will be even more difficult to raise awareness and clarify misconceptions about the census for AANHPIs who lack broadband connection. While studies on the demographics of internet usage often illustrate a false narrative that AANHPIs are uniformly connected to the internet, digital divide indicators — educational attainment, income level, and English proficiency — suggest a potential gap in access among different ethnic groups. For example, 4.6% of Japanese Americans have less than a high school diploma, compared with 53.6% of Burmese Americans (2017 ACS 1-Year Estimates, U.S. Census Bureau). Additionally, whereas the median household income of Indian Americans is $114,261, that of Samoan Americans and Burmese Americans is $54,193 and $39,730, respectively. Finally, 18.7% of Indian Americans and 20.4% of Tongan Americans are LEP, compared with 48.9% of Vietnamese Americans and 42.9% of Marshallese Americans. These statistics not only illustrate striking disparities within the AANHPI community, but also allow us to project a potential lack of broadband connection for a substantial proportion of it.
Based on these statistics, it is intuitive that AANHPIs without broadband connection are less likely to participate in the 2020 Census, which could lead to a loss of government resources and congressional seats for their communities. Unfortunately, the upcoming census presents additional barriers for individuals who are neither connected to the internet nor proficient in English. Among the 12 non-English languages in which the online 2020 Census form will be available, the only Asian languages are Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Tagalog, and Japanese, and the form will not be available in any NHPI languages. The Census Bureau plans to send paper forms to rural communities with low rates of broadband connection. However, most AANHPIs who lack broadband connection or are LEP live in urban areas where the Census Bureau will encourage online responses. Additionally, the paper form is only available in English and Spanish and not in any Asian languages. So even though households that fail to complete the online form will eventually receive a paper form with the fifth mailing as well as some rural communities, AANHPIs will be missed if they don’t have access to the internet and aren’t proficient in English as they will be unable to fill out the paper form that is not in their language. If a household does not complete the form after five mailings, a census enumerator will visit the home — a method that AANHPIs, along with most immigrant communities, do not prefer.
Barriers to completing the census do not end there. Since in-language materials about the census are mostly available online, individuals may need to depend on places of worship, ethnic grocery stores, and other community networks for information. However, one important type of resource is no longer available — for the 2020 Census, the Census Bureau decided to stop funding Questionnaire Assistance Centers — community centers that Census Bureau employees formerly operated to answer people’s questions about completing the form, provide special language assistance, and answer general questions. Instead, they will rely on a Mobile Questionnaire Assistance model, under which Census Bureau employees will travel across the country to public events, such as state fairs, to help people fill out the census.
Given the instrumental role of census data in shaping our communities, it is critical that the Census Bureau understand how the digital divide will impede its ability to achieve a complete and accurate census count. The AANHPI community, along with other hard-to-count populations, deserves to be counted in the 2020 Census. As Commissioner Rosenworcel rightly stated, “our duty is to count every person, whether or not they have access to or can afford the internet.”
For get out the count and 2020 Census community resource. go to CountUsIn2020.org.
Livia Luan is the programs associate and executive assistant at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, where she supports the telecommunications, technology, and media program on rapidly evolving issues such as digital privacy, digital equity, and facial recognition technology .Raima Roy is the Program Associate for Census and Civic Engagement at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.