Ann McFeatters: There is still time to save the census

Tribune Content Agency

You’re still reeling from how botched the federal government’s response to COVID-19 has been. You won’t believe how messed up the census is.

The census, required by the Constitution every 10 years, is really, really important. It is used to figure out where federal funds go and where social services are needed. It affects your hometown and your neighborhood in vital ways such as how many schools, hospitals and fire departments are near you.

Census data is used to apportion the seats of the House of Representatives, redraw congressional districts and help businesses set marketing strategies and goals.

Like voting, responding to the census is a civic duty. Unlike voting, it is required. It is a snapshot of our nation at a difficult time. It can be used to help us return from the economic abyss the virus has catapulted us into.

But for many it is not working.

The General Accountability Office said this census comes under the “high risk” category of government services. For good reason.

If you go online, chances are good the website will not accept your 12-digit Census ID, sent to you in the mail at great expense about three times.

If you call, you will get a ridiculous message that there is a huge backup, that if your code doesn’t work and you need a paper form, you can’t get one over the phone. Wait until it comes in the mail.

If you seek online help, you are online chatting with a picture of some tech dude when suddenly you see that you will be billed for something like $14.99.

The plan was to employ half a million people, many going door to door. With COVID-19 raging across America, that’s not going to happen on time.

This 2020 census has had a troubled start from Donald Trump’s get-go. You may recall that Wilbur Ross, who heads the Commerce Department (yes, the antiquarian billionaire oversees the census), decided to try to get a citizenship question on the questionnaire that we are required by law to complete.

The Supreme Court, which seems to think it has a duty to affirm whatever this administration wants, nonetheless found that Ross lied when he said the reason for demanding that everyone must declare under law whether or not they are U.S. citizens was to enforce the Voting Rights Act. The justices said that was ridiculous and disallowed the question.

But damage was done. Millions of undocumented immigrants feared responding to the census might doom them to deportation.

The census is a required count of everyone living in the United States as of April 1; not citizens or undocumented workers or people seeking asylum or anything else. It is supposed to take less time to fill out than it takes to “drink your morning coffee.”

Ha. You could drink the whole pot in the time it takes to fill out a form under “Please Log In” that keeps going back to the start repeatedly, mocking you and double daring you to move to Canada. Just trying to fill out this form makes signing up for Obamacare back in 2010 seem like a walk in the park (that is figurative — stay out of the park playgrounds until the virus is spent.)

Before the virus struck, the GAO warned, “it will be important that the (U.S. Census) Bureau addresses system security weaknesses in a timely manner, and that risks are at an acceptable level before systems are deployed.”

Well, the administration made sure that didn’t happen. If you check under troubleshooting for Americans’ comments after trying to fill out their forms, you get a lot of disgust and comments such as “not ready for prime time.” (The country is only 243 years old; what can we expect?)

Obviously, the April 1 census deadline is being extended. Paper questionnaires are supposed to be mailed April 16. (About the time stimulus checks go out.) Census workers are interviewing residents outside their homes standing 6 feet away. In-depth interviews in such places as Maine are being delayed. And the government had to add a whole section on the internet trying to fight rumors about the census.

It used to cost $16 to count a household; that cost is now $92. The cost of the 2020 census is estimated to be $15.6 billion. That could be a down payment. It may be the 2020 census will be seen as another government debacle, and not just because of COVID-19. But there’s still time. And we’ll get another chance in 2030.



Ann McFeatters is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Readers may send her email at


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