11 Things to Know about the 2020 Census

On Thursday, January 9, our president and CEO – Vanita Gupta – testified before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on reaching hard-to-count communities in the 2020 Census. As Gupta made clear in her testimony, our coalition believes that a fair and accurate census is among the most important civil rights issues of our day because “it is the bedrock of our democracy and has enormous impact on the nation’s ability to ensure equal treatment under the law.”

The Center for Urban Research at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY), together with The Leadership Conference, has launched a searchable online map that identifies communities whose demographics and other characteristics qualify them as “hard-to-count” for purposes of the 2020 Census.

As Gupta told the committee, the Census Bureau will face a number of challenges in accurately counting hard-to-count communities, which are in “every state and district, from large urban areas to rural and remote communities, including American Indian tribal lands and reservations.” 

Here are 11 things Gupta said while answering questions from committee members that are worth remembering:

The basics

“So let’s clarify something, Ms. Gupta,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said in beginning her questions. “Will the 2020 Census ask people about their documented status or citizenship status?” Gupta replied that it will not.

In response to Ocasio-Cortez’s questions, Gupta also clarified that filling out the census is safe and confidential, that federal law prohibits the sharing of census information with other government agencies, and that the sharing of information would be a serious crime.

They also discussed the political motives for wanting an undercount in particular communities. 

“The citizenship litigation and the Supreme Court found that even just the kind of impetus and motive for adding that question was motivated by partisan gain, and Dr. Thomas Hofeller’s memos that were discovered in the course of that litigation unfortunately revealed that there was an effort to weaponize the Census for partisan gain when, in fact, it should be a core government institution and function that is free from politics.” She later added: “Look no further than Thomas Hofeller’s memo advocating for the addition of the citizenship question to advantage non-Hispanic-Whites.”

For more census basics, check out this Census 101 fact sheet from State Voices and this Why the Census Counts fact sheet from our sister organization.

Internet access

Rep. Rashida Tlaib focused her questions on the importance of Internet access given that this year’s count is the first high tech census.

“I really appreciate you bringing up the cost issues as well as accessibility,” Gupta responded. “It’s costly for individuals, connection speeds vary, higher speeds cost more money, and we know which communities have access to higher connectivity and the like.”

“To put the positive piece on this,” she said, “there’s been a lot of cities and states and NGOs that have been really stepping up to deploy and make Wi-Fi centers available and devices available in public spaces for households to respond to the census, but we know that’s not a…structural answer to some of the grave issues that you’re talking about.”

A report from Georgetown and our sister organization in late 2017 spoke to some of these challenges and provided recommendations to Congress, the administration, and community leaders. Read more in Counting Everyone in the Digital Age: The Implications of Technology Use in the 2020 Decennial Census for the Count of Disadvantaged Groups. Last summer, FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel wrote about the digital divide and a potential undercount of people who lack Internet access. Read her piece here.


In response to Rep. Robin Kelly’s questions about cybersecurity concerns, Gupta said that “technology is hugely important to reaching more people, but it brings cyber security threats whether they’re real or perceived and that can chill participation as well. And the bureau has to do everything with private, federal, and state partners to ensure security. We have been pushing the bureau to take necessary steps to address how new IT and automated systems are going to affect the communities that they are most likely to miss.”

This issue is critical, which is why a chapter of the Census Counts campaign’s Get out the Count toolkit is dedicated to it. Check out that resource, produced with New America, here. You can also learn more on the Census Counts campaign’s technology page.


Rep. John Sarbanes wanted to know more about census disinformation. 

“We have been deeply concerned about census-related disinformation,” Gupta said, “which really seeks to persuade masses of people to…not participate in the count.” She noted that these messages “can contain false information about who can participate, about when to participate, about how to participate, and it can spread through social media and networks.”

The result, she explained, is “that countless people count themselves out” of the census. And tech companies have a role to play in preventing that.

“The Leadership Conference and other civil rights groups actually pushed very vigorously with Facebook at the very highest level of the company…and gave very detailed input what would be required to actually have a rigorous and robust census interference policy,” she said. “We commended Facebook when they announced their policy for developing really what…to date is the most comprehensive policy in the sector for combating census interference.”

Read more about Facebook’s new census interference policy here.

Lack of trust

In response to Rep. Jamie Raskin’s question related to a lack of trust in the privacy and security of the census and how it could lead to an undercount in communities, Gupta said that “There’s no question that a lack of trust in privacy could…chill participation in the census if [communities] feel that their data will be misused or turned over to other government agencies and the like. It is why all of our organizations sitting at the table have done so much public education. We believe the bureau needs to do more public education about the existing federal laws, very robust, that safeguard the confidentiality of census data.”

“The law is clear as day,” Gupta stated. And there are numerous resources available to explain it. Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC’s Count Us in 2020 initiative has this fact sheet on census confidentiality. The Brennan Center for Justice also has this brief describing the federal laws that protect census confidentiality

Complete Count Committees

Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney asked Gupta about the Census Bureau’s engagement with complete count committees in communities across the country, which Gupta noted “are incredibly important.” But two states – South Dakota and Nebraska – still haven’t created them. Where they do exist, states “have to put significant funding towards them, particularly because this is going to be one of the most difficult enumerations. So Florida created a complete count committee this week, but then did not allocate any dollars to it,” Gupta said. Find out whether a state has funded their CCC here.

The Census Counts campaign, housed at our sister organization, recently released a Get Out the Count toolkit that includes a chapter on creating and working with complete count committees. Access it here.

Partnership program

Rep. Harley Rouda asked about why partnership specialists are so important in increasing census participation in hard-to-count communities.

“The partnership specialists really are reflective of the local communities,” Gupta said. “They are often made up of people from local communities who are going to be much more trusted messengers as well as doorknockers than anyone from the federal government or the bureau if they have to self-identify that way.”

Gupta also described the importance of trusted messengers in communities, particularly in light of escalated fears following the administration’s failed attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census – and other attacks on immigrants in America.

For more information about census partnerships and outreach, check out this page from NETWORK. Additionally, read the outreach and best practices chapter of the Census Counts campaign’s Get Out the Count toolkit.


As Gupta noted in response to Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, libraries are “some of the most critical partners and institutions at the local communities to help get public education out and be providing services to communities around actually filling out the census. And the American Library Association has been working with our coalition and members of this committee regarding the bureau’s plan for mobile questionnaire assistance centers and other key issues.”

Last year, the American Library Association released its Libraries’ Guide to the 2020 Census and also has available a shorter brief about the vital role libraries play in the decennial count. To access all of the ALA’s census resources, visit ala.org/census.


Business partnerships

Rep. Katie Porter was interested in learning more about developing partnerships with businesses in order to reach hard-to-count communities. 

As Gupta noted, “The Leadership Conference and several organizations at this table have been working very closely with trying to get more corporate partners to be partners in helping to get out the count. And we’ve seen a number of companies really step up for the very reasons that many of them articulated in their amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court about their concern about the citizenship question. Companies understand the business case for an accurate census.”

“But,” she said, “we need more companies to be engaged.” That’s why groups like the Council for a Strong America have developed toolkits for business owners and operators – with toolkits available for business leaders in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Learn more here about how businesses can help promote the census.

Health care

Rep. Ayanna Pressley made an important connection: “Census data is used to allocate hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding for healthcare programs,” Pressley said at the hearing. “Most people aren’t aware that that includes Medicaid and CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program. These programs provide coverage to millions of families working to make ends meet in the United States.” Then she asked Gupta to explain.

“Census data is the basis by which these really large federal programs are going to be able to allocate dollars per person in districts. And so literally, an undercount of people in your community will result in smaller block grants being given through these programs for kids to get the healthcare that they need. And, of course, we know also about healthcare disparities already, so the consequences of an undercount in communities, the healthcare consequences are going to be that much more dire.”

For more about why the census is so important to the health care sector, take a look at this fact sheet.


Rep. Jimmy Gomez asked Gupta about barriers to counting people experiencing homelessness and whether the Census Bureau has a strategy to ensure they are counted.

“They are among the most vulnerable populations for the bureau,” Gupta said. “The bureau’s really going to need to work with direct service providers, mobile food units, shelters, soup kitchens and the like, as well as enumerating at outdoor locations and some 24-hour businesses to get an accurate count.”

Gupta emphasized the importance of coordinating with community leaders running direct service programs. “They know where the homeless populations are seasonally in their districts. And so having a very close-knit coordination is going to be really vital to ensuring that homeless people are counted.”

For more on people experiencing homelessness and the 2020 Census, read this fact sheet from our sister organization and the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality’s Economic Security and Opportunity Initiative. You can also check out Georgetown’s brief on Counting People Experiencing Homelessness: A Guide to 2020 Census Operations.

Last week’s hearing was not the last opportunity for committee members to learn more and ask questions. During the hearing, Chairwoman Maloney announced that Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham would testify before the committee on February 12 to address challenges facing the 2020 Census. Members of the committee should keep these and other important issues in mind as they prepare their questions.