Crowds gather at the National Mall in 2009.

Crowds gather at the National Mall in 2009.

Over the past two weeks we’ve discussed the importance of the 2020 census and the historically undercounted communities. In the final segment in our series, we take a look beyond the count to determine how the data collected is used.

We’ll also discuss the importance of the American Community Survey, the ongoing survey that provides vital information on a yearly basis about our nation and its people. 

And due to the global coronavirus pandemic the Census Bureau has suspended field operations for the once-a-decade head count for two more weeks. Operations are scheduled to resume April 15, but if the virus grows to the levels experts are forecasting, will the count need to be delayed indefinitely?

Produced by Kurt Gardinier


  • Andrew Reamer Research professor, George Washington University
  • D’Vera Cohn Senior writer and editor, Pew Research Center; @allthingscensus
  • Terri Ann Lowenthal Nationally recognized expert, consultant and speaker on the U.S. census, fourteen-year congressional aide who served as staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee


  • 12:00:02

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show from WAMU 88.5 and I'm broadcasting from home, welcome. Later in the broadcast author Joshua Myers joins us for a conversation about black student activism and the legacy of the 1989 Howard University protests. But first have you ever filled out the Census Bureau's American Community Survey? Would you speak to a U.S. census worker if they came to your door despite fears of the coronavirus? During the past two weeks we've discussed the importance of the 2020 census and the historically undercounted communities.

  • 12:00:36

    KOJO NNAMDIToday, in the final installment of our census 2020 series we take a look beyond the count to how the data collected is used for the next 10 years. And because there's no escaping it we'll also look at what effect the coronavirus pandemic is having on the count. So I ask again give us a call. Have you ever filled out the Census Bureau's American Community Survey? Joining me now to discuss this is Terri Ann Lowenthal, Nationally recognized expert on the U.S. census, a veteran congressional aide who served as staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee and who joined us on the first census segment. Terri Ann Lowenthal, thank you for joining us again.

  • 12:01:13

    TERRI ANN LOWENTHALWell, thank you. It's great to be with you from my home to yours.

  • 12:01:17

    NNAMDIThank you. Also joining us is D'Vera Cohn, Senior writer and editor at the Pew Research Center focusing on demographics, immigration and the U.S. census. D'Vera, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:28

    D'VERA COHNAnd thanks for asking me.

  • 12:01:29

    NNAMDIAnd Andrew Reamer is a Research professor at George Washington University who tracks the role of the 2020 census in guiding federal spending and business investment. Andrew, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:40

    ANDREW REAMERMy pleasure. Good afternoon.

  • 12:01:42

    NNAMDIAndrew, before we get into how the census data is actually used, please remind our listeners of the importance of the census and how it began back in the year 1790.

  • 12:01:53

    REAMERThe census was created by the founders as a foundation of democracy that a portion of the seats in the House of Representatives are determined per Article 1 Section 2 of the Constitution on the basis of each state's proportion of population and that's to be determined through a census to be conducted every 10 years. So that is the original purpose to provide the foundation for the democracy. In 1790, on the floor of the House, James Madison had a second and bright idea that really has powered the census ever since, which was to ask questions. As long as you're doing a headcount ask questions of people regarding their age, sex and occupation so that Congress might govern better might know the characteristics of its constituents. And Congress readily agreed to that, and that has been a part of the census ever since.

  • 12:02:51

    REAMERThe census is not just one question. How many people live in your household? It is a series of demographic questions about your characteristics.

  • 12:03:00

    NNAMDIAre those demographics --

  • 12:03:02

    REAMERGo ahead.

  • 12:03:03

    NNAMDIAre those demographic questions what you call the extensions of the census?

  • 12:03:07

    REAMERIn a technical sense yes, because they're not part of the Constitution. It was really Madison's bright idea to ask these questions as an extension of the census. So that Congress could have a sense of who they're serving, each member of Congress, who their constituents -- what their constituents look like, and so yeah. That addition to the census, these extra questions really have enabled the effective functioning of government and business for 200 years -- over 200 years.

  • 12:03:43

    NNAMDIWell, the Constitution mandates that this count be carried every 10 years, but how useful are the data as the decade continues to progress?

  • 12:03:52

    REAMERThat is a great question. And for over two centuries that was the best that the government could do, but because the extra questions suggested by Madison became so valuable and became out of date so quickly that in the 1990s the Census Bureau with Congress's backing started experimenting with something called the American Community Survey, which is taking many of those questions and asking them on a continual basis rather than every 10 years.

  • 12:04:27

    REAMERSo as of 2005 the Census Bureau has been operating the American Community Survey, which goes to 300,000 households a month over the decade. So that is an extension of the census as well, the decennial census. It just runs on a continuous basis. So the results is that at the end in the fall of every year we get new numbers for the prior year and we don't have to wait 10 years to get the numbers as we did up through 2000.

  • 12:05:02

    NNAMDID'Vera Cohn, there are nine questions on the 2020 census. How did they choose those nine?

  • 12:05:09

    COHNAll of those nine are supposed to have some kind of use based in federal law or needs for federal programs. So the data that comes out of the census really tells us everything we know about our population. For example, how large is the potential workforce? How many people are in different age, sex and ethnic or racial groups to try to figure out disease rates? Where do people live, who might need emergency help? There's a question about homeownership on the census. Homeownership is considered an important indicator of the health of our economy.

  • 12:05:51

    NNAMDIAccording to the Pew report that you co-authored that was released this morning, D'Vera, most U.S. adults have seen something recently about the 2020 census and most are ready to participate. Those numbers are up from a few weeks earlier. Could that translate to a high count?

  • 12:06:08

    COHNWell, certainly the Census Bureau is hoping for that. But, you know, people sometimes are optimistic when they say they're going to fill out their forms. And history tells us that more people say they'll fill out the census than actually do. The census has been releasing daily response rates. And as of yesterday it was just under 35 percent of households that were eligible to respond on their own had done so. That's compared with about 60 percent they're hoping for. So there's a ways to go.

  • 12:06:44

    NNAMDIHow is the census data used locally by both governments and non-governmental organizations, NGOs? D'Vera.

  • 12:06:53

    COHNThere are a lot of local uses of census data. One important one is just planning for the future. So you want to know as a local government how many school children do you have? So that's important to know how many young children you have who will be aging into the school population. You want to know how many people are in the older population, because they might need services, similarly with different racial and ethnic groups. You use the census data to help enforce law such as civil rights laws pertaining to, you know, are people being treated fairly?

  • 12:07:30

    COHNThe Census Bureau reached out to governments a couple of years ago and asked, how do you use census data? Because they were trying to set priorities for what kind of data they would release. And the range of uses was quite wide. You know, one local government said they used it to identify vulnerable populations during emergencies, for example, outbreak of mumps or wildfires or windstorms. Another one said that they used it to do transportation forecasts. Where might they need new roads or mass transit?

  • 12:07:55

    COHNAnother one said they used it to forecast the workforce, the size of the workforce, which might bare on communicating data or how healthy your economy might be. So there's really anything you want to know about your future is there in the census data today.

  • 12:08:19

    NNAMDIIndeed. In this region it can affect how various jurisdictions put out their voting data, because in this area, it's my understanding, Montgomery County is required to offer ballots in English and Spanish, Fairfax County in English, Spanish and Vietnamese; is that correct?

  • 12:08:39

    COHNThat's right. The census data along with some other information is used to tell which jurisdictions are required to offer language assistance in voting. So that's not just in terms of translating ballots, but also other elections material. And to do that they have to they have to have a number of voting age citizens who speak English less than very well. Well, the voting age comes off the census itself. The other information comes off the American Community Survey. They also put in some information on education levels. So people with low education levels, how many are those? So there are more than 200 -- 260 is the latest number for counties, cities and other jurisdictions in 29 states that have to offer this kind of ballot and other election material translation.

  • 12:09:35

    NNAMDITerri Ann Lowenthal, before we come to you, let's hear from Ernie in Chevy Chase, because what he wants to ask about is what I would like to also ask you about. Here's Ernie in Chevy Chase. Ernie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:09:47

    ERNIEYeah, I know the U.S. Constitution requires for good reason that the census be taken every 10 years for our representation in Congress. Of course, we here in Washington don't have that representation. So I'm curious what the legal basis is to require the District of Columbia residents to be counted if we're not going to have a vote. So that's number one. And then secondly, what's the legal basis to require people, who may have personal privacy issues about being more than counted of providing all the other personal information that the government is collecting? Thank you.

  • 12:10:33

    NNAMDIThank you. Terri Ann, we've already talked about the importance of the American Community Survey, but tell us a little bit more about the questions on the survey addressing Ernie's concerns. For some people they seem overly intrusive.

  • 12:10:45

    LOWENTHALYes, indeed they do. And I certainly can understand that. Interestingly, though, as D'Vera said earlier about the basis for the questions on the decennial census the 2020 census that's going on now, every question on the American Community Survey collects data that are either required directly by federal law or there's no other data available to implement and enforce federal programs and federal laws such as the Voting Rights Act, which we've talked about before. I think -- let me give a really quick example of how questions that sound noisy really serve an important purpose. So one is questions that ask what time you leave and return home for work and your starting and ending points when you make that commute and how you get there, by car, bus, bike and so forth.

  • 12:11:47

    LOWENTHALSo that sounds very intrusive. But once compiled the information allows transportation planners to map out commuting patterns, right, and determine, for example, when to establish HOV lanes or one way traffic flows like you have on Rock Creek Parkway in the morning and the evening commutes, where to add bicycles and bike lanes.

  • 12:12:09

    NNAMDIYou only have about 20 seconds left.

  • 12:12:12

    LOWENTHALAnd so that's just an example of how the data in real life are put to good use.

  • 12:12:17

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll be interested in hearing your questions about the census. Give us a call 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:12:52

    NNAMDIWelcome back. Later in the broadcast we'll be talking about the legacy of a 1989 Howard University protest. Right now we're talking about census 2020 with Terri Ann Lowenthal, Nationally recognized expert on the U.S. census and a veteran congressional aide who served as staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee. D'Vera Cohn is a Senior writer and editor at the Pew Research Center focusing on demographics, immigration and the U.S. census. And Andrew Reamer is a Research professor at George Washington University, who tracks the role of the 2020 census in guiding federal spending and business investment.

  • 12:13:28

    NNAMDIAndrew, the second question our caller had had to do with the District of Columbia. He says, look we don't get to vote in Congress. So what's the point of D.C. residents filling out the census? How would you respond, Andrew?

  • 12:13:39

    REAMERIt's for all those other reasons. If Washington wants get its fair share -- if Washington D.C. wants to get its fair share of $1.5 trillion in federal spending on the basis of its needs, then the U.S. government needs to know who lives in Washington D.C. on the basis -- in terms of their characteristics, in terms of their age, in terms of their income and in terms of their housing conditions. So that's why D.C. has to fill out the form as does everyone else in the country, because back to this notion of Madison's bright idea that the government -- and also the business sector run on the data derived from the census.

  • 12:14:27

    REAMERStarbucks, Target do not -- you know, if we ever get back to actually having no more social distancing that every retail store uses census data in terms of all of those characteristics that are collected to determine where to put retail establishments and what to carry. The Target in Cleveland Park is quite different than the Target in Columbia Heights, because of the census data.

  • 12:14:54

    NNAMDITerri Ann Lowenthal, there's a history of communities being undercounted and now the public health crisis we're in has pushed the Census Bureau to delay the door to door count. And it may have to be canceled all together. Can we get an accurate count without it or should the census be postponed indefinitely?

  • 12:15:14

    LOWENTHALWell, you're asking a very fundamental question. If I can, let me start by making sure your listeners know that the 2020 census has not been canceled or paused yet. It is still going on and it's really important that you respond on your own if you can online or by phone or using a paper questionnaire. And then you can avoid having a census taker come to your home. And those options will be available through August 14, but the sooner you respond the better your information will be, but having said that, you're right. The coronavirus virus crisis is a very serious challenge to an already challenged census.

  • 12:15:58

    LOWENTHALAnd the Census Bureau has had to modify a number of operations. In terms of historically undercounted communities I agree with you that they will be disadvantaged most by these disruptions to the census. In large part, because the self-response for historically undercounted communities such as Ward 7 and 8 and parts of northeast and pockets of southwest, those rates as of now are lower than the higher income neighborhoods in the city. The fewer households that respond on their own the more homes census takers have to visit. And with the new environment when that operation has been delayed we don't know how well that will go down the road.

  • 12:16:48

    NNAMDIAnd D'Vera Cohn, we got an email from Erin who says, "I totally understand the importance of the census and its political ramifications, but I also recognize concerns regarding how the census data could be severely misused. Japanese Americans paid a heavy price when their census data was used to locate them." I suspect, D'Vera Cohn, that there are some immigrants in this country and some undocumented immigrants who share that fear.

  • 12:17:17

    COHNCertainly that's what we're hearing. And because many people do believe that there's a citizenship question on the census, which there is not, there are some who are concerned that immigrants in particular may resist answering. I think one thing that's important to note is that the government has apologized for misusing census data to try to locate Japanese Americans during World War II. And after the war the law that governed census data was tightened to the point that census individual responses cannot be released for 72 years and cannot be shared with any other agencies such as law enforcement, immigration, etcetera.

  • 12:18:02

    COHNThe census has had a pretty good record of honoring that confidentiality law since it was passed. And there are groups that have mobilized. I think a coalition was announced yesterday of groups to police that, I guess, or to make sure that the census does honor its commitment. There's no reason to doubt that it will and that it will in any way share data, but there is some -- there are some outside groups that have mobilized about that.

  • 12:18:31

    NNAMDIHere is Gannon in Spring Field, Virginia. Gannon, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:18:36

    GANNONHi, Kojo. I'm just replying to your call about people do the Community Census and I actually did that. So just to let everybody know what happened was a census worker showed up at my door and wanted to ask questions. And I said I would. Turned out she was doing a survey about community crime that lasted several years and she actually contacted me every six months to see if any of my responses had changed. She was looking specifically at things like did anyone break into your car? Did anyone break into your property? Were you the victim of an assault? That sort of thing and they tied that with gender, age that sort of typical census details. So I just wanted to pass that on.

  • 12:19:21

    GANNONAnd also mention that your previous speaker was talking about Japanese Americans and I'm a Japanese American. We have -- I would say just speaking for myself that the confidence in the census has gone up tremendously. I had no trouble answering any of those questions that the census taker asked me.

  • 12:19:41

    NNAMDITerri Ann Lowenthal, any comment about some of the questions that Gannon said he was being asked about like crime in the neighborhood, etcetera.

  • 12:19:48

    LOWENTHALYes, certainly, and first of all thanks for filling out the 2020 census, Gannon. Yeah, that was not the American Community Survey. I suspect that's what's called the National Crime Victimization Survey. It is conducted by -- for the Justice Department, the Bureau of Justice statistics. Although, there may be workers from the Census Bureau that carry it out. And there are some surveys that are ongoing. He said he was contacted every six months. It's called longitudinal surveys to, you know, sort of track the progress of conditions and need and so forth. So thanks for doing your part to help. All parts of the federal government collect important data that we hope policymakers will use to make informed decisions.

  • 12:20:35

    NNAMDIOn to Steve in Rockville. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:20:41

    STEVEYes. Thank you for having this show. I actually have a sociology background. I worked on the census in 2010. But what I want to know about now -- and thank you for having those guests. They say the deadline is April 1, which is tomorrow counting the overall population as of that date. And with the coronavirus and ongoing deaths, I wonder how would that work out in terms of counting everybody.

  • 12:21:08

    NNAMDID'Vera Cohn and Terri Ann Lowenthal, I would like to have you both weigh in on this. D'Vera, you first.

  • 12:21:13

    COHNSure. Well, April 1 is what they call a reference date. They want a snapshot of the country on April 1. So if you are around on April 1 including if you've just had a newborn baby and you're still in the hospital with the baby, they want to count you. And, you know, the reference date is important, because otherwise you don't have any fixed basis on which to make any comparisons with the past or to know that population size is accurate.

  • 12:21:48

    NNAMDIAnd you, Terri Ann Lowenthal?

  • 12:21:49

    LOWENTHALWell, just quickly. D is absolutely right. What's important -- easy to understand is that the census, the 10 year census, is a snapshot of the population of the country on one day, April 1, but the counting goes on for weeks and months after that because it takes a long time to count a population of 330 million whereas the American Community Survey, which we started, you know, out talking about sort of is more like a video. And it gives you updated information about important more detailed characteristics about our communities on an annual basis.

  • 12:22:31

    NNAMDIAndrew Reamer, how was the American Community Survey under threat back in 2009?

  • 12:22:37

    REAMERWell, when the Tea Party rose, there was -- it became a symbol of government intrusiveness in their minds of asking questions. And as Terri Ann said a moment ago, you know, some people did not respond well to being asked at what time they leave for work. So there were a series of bills in Congress in the early 2010s sponsored by Tea Party people to make the American Community Survey voluntary and actually one effort to defund it to terminate it. And so Ted Poe, a congressman from Texas, was the prime sponsor. He had 70 co-sponsors in 2012. And then the House voted to defund the American Community Survey. Congress knew full well about the importance of the American Community Survey to the effective operation of government. But they had trouble quelling the Tea Party.

  • 12:23:34

    REAMERSo it was really the Senate that stepped in and saved the day with kind of the backroom acquiescence of the House whom fully understood what the consequences would be. So that was the scariest point and then since then it seems like the efforts to kill the ACS have quelled -- have calmed down.

  • 12:23:55

    NNAMDIHere's Jim in Adams Morgan. Jim, your turn.

  • 12:24:00

    JIMYes, good morning, Kojo. I was concerned earlier. I think you're doing a better job now. But I was concerned earlier that there was a lot of conflation between the American Community Survey and the extensive list of questions they ask and the census, which asks only nine questions. And it might help your audience if you just went over those nine questions, because, you know, there's virtually nothing there that's, you know, scary or frightening or that most people wouldn't want to answer.

  • 12:24:34

    NNAMDIWell, I'm afraid we don't have enough time to go over the nine questions, but I think we've made a fairly clear distinction between the census itself and the American Community Survey. And I'm hoping -- and I'm glad you said I'm doing better on that, because I think now people have a clearer idea. But we only have about a minute left. D'Vera Cohn, 50,000 is a big number for a town to reach in terms of population size. What happens when a town reaches that number?

  • 12:25:00

    COHNYeah. That's an interesting question. Once you reach 50k in population you are considered a metropolitan statistical area and that allows you to receive all kinds of goodies in terms of federal funding. And so one example I've heard of is the town of Bozeman, Montana, which had an estimated population of 48,000. They're dearly hoping to reach 50,000 so that they can be eligible for more federal funds and grants that they need to handle their more complex and growing universe.

  • 12:25:33

    NNAMDIWell, good luck to Bozeman, Montana. D'Vera Cohn is a Senior writer and editor at the Pew Research Center focusing on demographics, immigration and the U.S. census. Terri Ann Lowenthal is a nationally recognized expert on the U.S. census and a veteran congressional aide who served as staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee. And Andrew Reamer is a Research professor at George Washington University who tracks the role of the 2020 census in guiding federal spending and business investment. Thank you all for joining us. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, author Joshua Myers for a conversation about black student activism and the legacy of 1989 Howard University protests. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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