Issues & Insights

FCC Commissioner Rosenworcel’s Concern Over Census Digital Divide Is Unfounded

Jessica Rosenworcel, a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission, took to Twitter this week to fret about people who lack Internet access being counted in this year’s census. But there are several safeguards in place to ensure that everyone participates.

Rosenworcel tweeted that this was the nation’s “first online census.”

“But what happens to those who do not have Internet access?” she asked. “It’s time to develop a plan to ensure that those who are least connected won’t be cut off from the count.”

If only there was such a plan … and, in fact, there is.

To dub this the nation’s first online census is exaggerating the point, given that responders could fill out surveys online in 2010. People can also fill out their surveys in paper form in 2020, as they have been able to do since the first census in 1790.

Invitations to complete the census online are being mailed out beginning this week. The census is important because it helps determine how many U.S. representatives each state gets and how money from the federal budget is allocated. 

While there is certainly a push for people to complete their questionnaires online this year, there are back-up plans to ensure that people are counted. Wired noted that in the push toward digital, the Census Bureau plans to use technology to help the process. This includes a mapping product that allows the bureau to target areas for mailed questionnaires and follow-up visits by census workers that are least likely to respond based on historical and demographic data. It also includes an app that 350,000 census workers will use to maximize their effectiveness based on their location, availability, and even the languages they can speak.

The bureau discovered some connectivity issues while doing address canvassing in some remote locations in West Virginia and Washington, but says that data will be stored and encrypted until the device used by workers is connected to the Internet.

On top of this, the bureau will mail paper questionnaires to the 20% of households located in areas of limited connectivity and to older populations less likely to be tech-savvy.

And for the first time, every household can answer census questions by phone.  

“The bureau built that contingency planning in there,” Maria Filippelli, a
public interest technology census fellow at New America, told Axios. “Online first is beneficial and easily accessible for a lot of people, but not everybody. So to get everybody counted, there’s the phone and paper. My hope is that’s good for everybody.”

Communities are also stepping up to ensure they are counted. There is a big push in Prince George’s County in Maryland for public awareness campaigns and assistance after roughly 30 percent of residents were not counted during the 2010 census – and that was in the days of primarily paper surveys.

Cullman County, Alabama, is holding Community Census Days across 12 communities in the coming weeks to raise awareness of the importance of being counted. 

Rosenworcel told Axios that the FCC “radically overstates” the level of broadband service, as its figures suggest that 21 million Americans don’t have broadband while Microsoft estimates that 162 million people don’t have broadband.

But we are talking about broadband (i.e. download speeds of 25 megabits per second), not no Internet access at all. If a device can run Netflix at 5 Mbps, one would think it could pull up a census questionnaire. 

The proportion of Americans with access to the Internet today is more than 87%.

The concern over the digital divide is overblown. The Census Bureau has established many safeguards to make sure that everyone who chooses to participate can take part in the decennial population count.

Kampis is investigative reporter for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

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