The Supreme Court effectively approved the Trump administration’s request to cut the 2020 census short in a ruling issued Tuesday in response to an emergency request made last week by the Justice Department. Hours later, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that all operations, including door-to-door interviews, would cease on October 15 — 16 days earlier than previously scheduled.
The Justice Department’s emergency request to the Supreme Court was the latest act in a long campaign by the Trump administration to hinder census operations and deny marginalized communities the resources and political power that accurate census data can provide. Census data is used to allocate roughly $1.5 trillion in federal income tax to local services, such as education, health care and infrastructure and to determine local and state voting districts for the coming decade.
One of the Trump administration’s first assaults on the census was its 2019 attempt to add a citizenship question to the census questionnaire, which, while unsuccessful, engendered mistrust of the census among undocumented immigrants. Then, on July 29, 2020, under orders from the White House, the Census Bureau cut a full month from the three months scheduled for the door-to-door follow-up. Testifying before Congress that same day, Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham (a Trump appointee) dodged questions about how the agency was planning to complete three months of work in two months’ time.
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There is little mystery behind the administration’s motivations. The results of the decennial census, one of the U.S.’s oldest and most painstakingly thorough institutions, determine the number of representatives in the House and electors in the Electoral College apportioned to each state. As this census happens to fall on an election year, Trump will only be able to oversee congressional reapportionment — and attempt to unconstitutionally exclude undocumented immigrants — if the pandemic-delayed Census Bureau finishes processing the collected data on schedule.
Lost Opportunities for Adequate Counting and Fair Reapportionment
Having worked as an enumerator for the Census Bureau in both 2010 and 2020, I understand just how difficult it is to make sure everyone is fairly counted — especially during a pandemic. I am painfully aware of how much will be lost by the Supreme Court’s decision to let the Trump administration cut short the counting process.
At 2:43 am on October 14, after two months of going door-to-door as a census enumerator, I received a message on my official U.S. Census smartphone: “As of 11:00 pm local time on October 15, data collection for the [Nonresponse Followup] operation will be complete. Please work diligently and continue to enumerate as many people as possible.”
The message triggered a memory from the later stages of census enumeration in 2010 — stages that are getting woefully cut short due to this week’s Supreme Court ruling.
On a sunny afternoon in June 2010, I sit on a stoop in Bushwick, an east Brooklyn neighborhood with a large immigrant population, watching the front door of the apartment building across the street. My shoulder bag is spun around to hide the giant U.S. Census Bureau logo on one side. I’ve been here for half an hour. A man in coveralls walks toward the door.
We are in “Phase 2” of the decennial census’s “Nonresponse Followup.” Most enumerators, who spent the past two months visiting every address that did not mail in a census questionnaire, have been let go, leaving behind what I adamantly call an “elite squad” — high-performing employees tasked with revisiting addresses where others failed to obtain information. Unlike Phase 1, when a brisk pace was expected, we are free to take the time necessary to get a response.
The front door is locked and though I see silhouettes in the windows, no one is answering their doorbells. But if someone walks in or out of the building, I can legally hold the door and let myself into the foyer. Inside, I can speak to the residents through their doors and patiently assure them that anything they tell me is confidential. And while they may not give me all of their personal information, I will be able to ensure that they are counted. I just need to get in the front door.
The man in coveralls turns toward the building and immediately, I am in motion, striding across the street, my arm already extending.
Working for the Census Under COVID
Even before this week’s Supreme Court ruling, the 2020 census was already beset by unusual challenges amid the COVID pandemic.
In August 2020, I reported to a one-story tutoring center in Brooklyn’s Chinatown for census training. After being selected for the job in February, I had heard nothing for months until receiving a call asking me to come in for training the following morning. With my industry (live comedy) wiped out by the pandemic, my stimulus check long spent, and with pandemic unemployment insurance having expired, I agreed.
I was ushered into a small classroom with no windows. I took a seat in the back corner, as far from others as possible, and looked up at the single ventilation duct in the room. A small strip of ribbon dangled from the grate, barely moving. Our supervisor began to read the training materials, as if hearing the words for the first time. After a moment, he lowered his mask below his mouth, explaining that it was hard to speak with it on, and continued to read. The trainee in front of me, a woman in her late thirties, interrupted and asked him to put the mask back on.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she told me later, “I just couldn’t.”
In the latter half of the training, over the sound of papers rustling and official U.S. Census bags being unzipped, our supervisor read a passage about COVID safety. In his monotone, it almost slid by, so I asked him to read it again.
“Enumerators are to wear a mask at all times in the field. The mask is to cover the nose …” he said, his mask hovering just beneath nose-level. “Please keep six feet from respondents when conducting interviews.”
This was the extent of our COVID safety training.
The Census Bureau does not require COVID testing, but I thought it responsible to know whether I was about to be a federally appointed Typhoid Mary. At the government-run testing center, I was handed a form on which to write the contact information of anyone I had recently been exposed to. A nurse assured me that the new COVID test was less invasive. As he inserted the swab a mere inch into my nostril, I considered the form in my hand: The Census Bureau’s confidentiality agreement strictly prohibits the sharing of “Personally Identifiable Information,” with a penalty of five years in prison or a $250,000 fine. If I were to test positive, contact tracing would be impossible.
On August 8, I received an answer to one of the questions that Census Bureau Director Dillingham had avoided. The Bureau emailed its employees with what felt like a sweepstakes: Enumerators could win up to $800 in bonus pay for working more hours and visiting more housing units per week. Soon after, the Bureau began offering overtime pay, then increased our minimum weekly hours. My supervisor began to send more encouraging texts, urging us to “kick ass” — clearly Dillingham had gotten to him too. Still waiting on the results of my COVID test, I thought about how this strategy was guaranteed to maximize the number of people enumerators would come in contact with in between tests, if they were getting tested at all.
Fear, Disarray and the Pandemic Complicated “Phase 1” in the 2020 Census
In 2020, Phase 1 was more complicated than it was a decade earlier. Many respondents said they already filled out their questionnaire or could not remember. In the Hasidic neighborhood of Borough Park, respondents were typically reluctant but many agreed to talk when I explained the benefits of the census. In adjacent neighborhoods populated by Mexican and Chinese immigrants, responses were far lower. Often, there was a language barrier and respondents closed the door before I could suggest an interpreter. Others, though I could hear them inside, did not answer at all. On my own block, neighbors whom I regularly pass on the street quietly peered at me through the blinds, disappearing when I noticed. It’s hard to blame them — Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducted raids in the area just last year.
Then there was the disorganized bureaucracy that seemed hilarious in 2010 but now felt like a waste of precious time. On one afternoon, unsure how to file a particular case, I followed protocol and called my supervisor, then his supervisor, then my local census office, then the central hotline — the last resort of the census enumerator. No one answered. Even the hotline went to voicemail, which was full. I spent the last four hours of my shift wondering if I had hallucinated this government job.
On another day, I spent half an hour on the phone with my supervisor, describing — and devising strategies to get inside of — an apartment building that turned out to be where my supervisor lives. He had been home the entire time.
By the time I received a call with the results of my COVID test from NYC Health and Hospitals — 12 days after the test was performed — I had lost count of the people I had come into contact with. The demands of the job made it impossible to tally all of the children spilling out of houses, neighbors squeezing past me in narrow hallways, and bodega patrons who yelled orders to the cashier as I interviewed them about the apartments above. The total was easily in the hundreds. Very few of them wore masks.
The health worker on the phone told me, “Your test came back inconclusive.” He asked if I’d been tested again. I had. Fed up, I had gone back to the same testing site the day before. Again, a nurse had told me the new test was “less invasive.” Only this time, he had pushed the swabs deeper into my nostrils.
“Could that have been the problem?” I asked the man on the phone. “Was the nurse improperly trained in the new test?”
“I don’t know,” he said, and hung up.
Two days later, my supervisor texted to inform me that I was his “top guy” and would be staying on the team for Phase 2. We would have only two weeks to visit every missing address in New York City. It had now been two weeks since my initial COVID test — still no certainty.
A Chaotic “Phase 2” of the 2020 Census Gets Cut Short
Phase 2 of the Nonresponse Followup is crucial to equal representation in the U.S. for communities least likely to respond to government surveys — including undocumented immigrants, Indigenous peoples and self-isolating religious communities — who are already victim to systemic power disparities and will only be further marginalized by underrepresentation. The phase also comprises thorough quality control, ensuring the accuracy of collected data through in-person re-interviews.
Ten years ago, I had some satisfying Phase 2 successes. I flash back to one evening in July 2010:
I’m sitting at a bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, my trench coat folded over my leg. I think I look like Humphrey Bogart but I probably look like a senior at an all-boys prep school. The bartender eyes me skeptically when I ask about the people who live upstairs. But I am polite, I tip well, and I do not leave. With time, he loosens up. And though he does not give me everyone’s full information, I am able to get a headcount for the building, which is acceptable in Phase 2.
In 2020, Phase 2 was tumultuous at best. We learned from the news that our jobs had been extended to October 5, then October 31. Daily conference calls emphasized the importance of working diligently, but we found ourselves inexplicably assigned fewer cases and fewer hours. Two days after destructive and fiery protests over government regulations in the neighborhood, the Bureau decided to “blitz” Borough Park, flooding the area with enumerators from across the city. Not a single person was willing to talk to me that day.
When I received the message on October 14 that the census would cease operations within two days, I felt guilty. I could have scheduled more hours, could have worked overtime. There are still addresses that we haven’t counted. The Census Bureau’s official communiques declare that “well over 99.9% of housing units have been accounted for,” but 0.01 percent of Americans is still roughly 328,000 people. Among the people who aren’t being counted are those afraid to be torn away from their families, those who have isolated due to a compromised immune system, those whose communities have reason to be suspicious of government officials. They stand to lose more power to the very forces that kept them from responding.
I opened the “Work Availability” page on my census phone and put myself in the schedule for the final two days of the 2020 census, available to work overtime.