by Jim Haigh, Keep Me Posted North America

Census 2020 is not going well. Nor is it going as planned. This critical distinction has been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, which again exposes the depth and breadth of the digital divide in America.

Popular narratives about the digital divide that separates our nation are too often anchored narrowly on the mere availability of broadband in a community. And now, emerging narratives about Census 2020 self-reporting issues routinely fail to look beyond the pandemic disruptions.

Long before the launch of this decade’s Constitutionally mandated count of the country’s resident population, planners at the Census Bureau smartly decided to embrace modern technology and create an online platform for responding to the critically important questionnaire. But then they made a giant leap of faith.

Instead of allowing every household to choose whether to participate online, by phone or by mail, the Bureau took the additional unprecedented step of deciding for them. Physical paper Census forms had been the traditional means of survey and reply, and the expectation for generations of respondents. But the Bureau made the calculation this year that 78.2% of households should want to, would be able to — and simply would just jump online to self-report crucial information. (Keep in mind: the final mail response rate was 74% in the 2010 Census.)

So nearly 8 in 10 residential addresses were not sent a paper form to complete at the launch of Census 2020 — which could have easily included directions for other options to reply. Instead, they were mailed “invitations to participate” online (or phone) — in envelopes identical in size and external message as those sent to the 21.8% who received a physical form to fill out. And then, when most of them failed to go online (or call), they were mailed reminder after reminder — to go online.

Only after the fourth or fifth mailing, depending on local delivery, did the forced-digital group finally get a paper Census. But for whatever reason, the envelope was identical to the previous mailings with with no external wording to announce that there was finally a physical survey inside, making it easier to again dismiss by those weary of the web.

From before the launch and throughout the Census 2020 campaign, the Census Bureau invested heavily — as it obviously should — to promote participation and describe the vital civic importance of response. The continuously evolving multimedia campaigns on broadcast, cable, print, online and social media shared a universal theme throughout: Reply Online!

We are now in mid-August. The means, mechanics and force used to push response online for Census 2020 has been unprecedented.

Yet, the National Internet Self-Response Rate is still barely above 50% — and time is running out.

The pandemic didn’t help Census 2020 efforts. Nor did it create the digital divide. Instead, it compounded the multiple dynamics that make it so wide and deep. And it would seem now that the final Bureau plan ignored the variety of reasons why Americans so often choose not to opt-in to electronic communications when given the choice of paper — especially when they consider the correspondence to be sensitive, personal or important.

The digital divide is far more complex than not having the availability of broadband infrastructure where one lives or works. Mere availability is a significant yet separate problem from personal affordability of broadband. Which is distinct from actual adoption and practical use of the expensive, fee-for-service communications infrastructure. All of which also require additional, expensive tools including fairly new hardware and very recent software, and a place where they are available.  Clearly, we have a long way to go to eliminate the challenges that will enable everyone to more fully embrace and participate in all things digital — including Census 2020.

This is why consumer advocates including Keep Me Posted relentlessly explain to policymakers and companies that digital-only communications are not for everyone. Printed and digital options are necessary for full inclusion and broader participation in commerce and community. Collectively, we need to appreciate that so many of our neighbors report difficulties in accessing online technologies, have security concerns about online fraud, or require paper communications for practical reasons. The digital divide is not limited to older adults, low-income households without computers or broadband service, people in rural areas where unreliable internet access is common, minority populations in urban areas with theoretical availability but not affordable access, and the one in four people living with a disability of some kind that are three times more likely to say that they never go online.

The future of a vibrant, inclusive and fully counted America needs an accurate Census 2020 that is not irreparably damaged by unwavering plans and artificial deadlines. Our country cannot afford a lack of will to learn and adapt under urgent circumstances — and must take the additional steps with extended timelines to assure fully representative results. KMP urges Congress to immediately pass legislation to extend the legal deadline for Census 2020 — and implores the Census Bureau to send a paper form to all non-responsive residences in an envelope clearly marked “Final Notice: Paper Form Enclosed — Postage Paid” along with robust and safe in-person measures to count communities historically known to be a challenge to include as required by our Nation’s founding document.

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