Census falling further behind in hiring outreach staff

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Census officials continue to fall behind their goals for hiring local outreach staff, a critical component in promoting the 2020 census among the hardest-to-count populations in the country, agency officials told an advisory committee.

While several aspects of the preparations, including address verification, are on or ahead of schedule, the U.S. Census Bureau said it remains more than 200 people short of its goal of hiring 1,500 local partnership staff ahead of next year’s count. The hiring problems have come as the agency ramps up for the 2020 enumeration that will be used to determine the number of congressional seats for each state, how federal funds are allocated, and to structure economic surveys.

Local hires known as partnership specialists are meant to build relationships with regional groups and governments to promote the decennial enumeration. Willette Allen, an assistant division chief with the Census Bureau, noted that the agency currently has more than 50,000 partnerships with local and national organizations that help provide census outreach and serve as “trusted voices” to residents skeptical about participating.

“Although we are a little bit behind in hiring our folks, we are on time for getting our partners on board,” Allen said Thursday.

While the agency has already employed more specialists this cycle than for the 2010 census, the hiring lag has been a spot of contention for government watchdogs and congressional Democrats concerned about the conduct around the count. The Census Bureau has cited the planned increase in partnership staff to justify other changes from the last census cycle, such as cutting back on physical office spaces.

During a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing in July, Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham cited changes like the anticipated increase in partnership staff to defend against agency cutbacks in other areas. He said that the “the bricks and mortar (strategy) wasn’t working” to protect the agency’s shrinking number of area Census offices and closure of its Questionnaire Assistance Centers.

Among House Democrats skeptical of Census preparations are Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nevada, who chairs a 2020 census task force for the Congressional Black Caucus.

“This administration has taken action specifically coordinated to discourage and frighten people away from participating in the 2020 census. Addressing our concerns with Director Dillingham is an opportunity to stand up for our constituents and historically undercounted communities,” Horsford said in a statement following a CBC meeting Tuesday with Dillingham.

The lackluster hiring has been highlighted by the Government Accountability Office, and officials there said in July the agency was in danger of missing key milestones for hiring and preparedness.

Democrats have raised concerns that the census also might miss millions of Americans, particularly young children and immigrants.

The Census Bureau is now in the midst of its address verification process, which it has slimmed down from prior decades as the agency relies more on computer assistance than ever before. The agency has also struggled as it hires staff for address verification and gets them on board. Soon, it also will have to ramp up hiring for more than 500,000 staff to conduct in-person enumeration for people who don’t respond to the census.

In remarks at the census advisory committee meeting, Dillingham acknowledged the agency faces numerous challenges in the process. It faces declining response rates among all surveys and an increasingly mobile population with complex households, he said. The Census Bureau also will compete with the 2020 election cycle for the public’s attention.

Perhaps most of all is a general discomfort Americans have toward the census, Dillingham said.

“People have concerns about sharing their information and protection of their responses,” he said.