Coronavirus and the 2020 Census: Revisiting the “Best Laid Plans”


April 21, 2020

Editor’s note: The Coalition on Human Needs is part of a coordinated effort to make sure young children are counted accurately in the 2020 Census. As part of this campaign, Count All Kids is focusing on interesting and innovative approaches advocates are taking to ensure an accurate count. To learn more about this campaign and to sign up to receive useful emails, visit

Across the country, in every state and U.S. territory, literally thousands and thousands of community events were planned this spring as part of a massive effort – sometimes coordinated, sometimes not – to ensure an accurate count of young children in the 2020 Census.

But as poet Robert Burns noted, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”

Coronavirus and the 2020 Census: Revisiting the “Best Laid Plans”

In other words: the coronavirus pandemic happened. And as of today, an estimated 95 percent of Americans are under some form of “shelter at home” instruction – residents of 42 states in all, plus those in Washington, D.C., Guam, and Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, self-response rates to the Census are running well behind the 2010 responses at the same time period, at the same time that many of the planned activities to get out the count have had to be cancelled or put on hold.

So child advocates, hoping to avoid the massive undercount of young children that occurred ten years ago, have had to adeptly shift to adjust strategies. Here’s a snapshot of how advocates in Alabama, Indiana, Nevada, New York, and Oklahoma are quickly pivoting.

In Alabama, Voices for Alabama’s Children this week is submitting op-eds to seven target areas throughout the state – signers will be board members or stakeholders known to the local community. The group also has re-designed a number of its printed outreach materials so that they can easily be dropped into email messages. The materials are available on the group’s website; already, the Alabama chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Boys and Girls Clubs of South Alabama, and the state’s Children Policy Councils have asked to use them, for a potential combined reach of 12,000 to 15,000 families.

In Indiana, the Marion County Commission on Youth (MCCOY) is sending out weekly Census updates to its community partners, under the subject line, “Census response rates: How is Indiana ranking up?”

“Hello, John,” begins one such missive. “It’s been one week since Census Day. Has your household been counted yet? The Census Bureau will continue collecting and accepting responses to the 2020 Census until August 14, 2020 so if your household or a household you know has not yet responded, there is still time to easily respond!”

The email then details response rates for the top ten and bottom ten counties in Indiana and top ten and bottom ten counties. And it notes that as of April 6, Indiana ranked 12th among all 50 states in its response rate (“Not bad at all!” the email exclaims. “But let’s try and get in the top 5!”)

In Nevada, the Children’s Advocacy Alliance had ordered more than 30,000 Census coloring books and more than 20,000 Census rack cards (from the Count All Kids toolkit) but then found itself with no events happening or opportunities to distribute them. Then, they got creative.

“In response to the pandemic, many of our partner organizations are operating food pantries and/or distribution sites that are targeted to low-income families, many of which reside in our target (hard-to-count) areas,” explains Interim Executive Director Jared Busker. “Through these partnerships, we were able to readjust our strategies by having our partner organizations include the coloring books and rack cards with their food distribution. Also, through a connection with our local school district, we were able to provide materials to another organization that is distributing ‘academic toolkits’ to families.”

Busker’s advice for advocates in other states? “Work with your partners who are providing emergency supports/services to your target populations and make it easy for them to incorporate the Census outreach in their work (i.e., providing them with the materials/resources). I would also advise advocates to be mindful that many of these organizations are stretched very thin right now, so it’s important to be cognizant and respectful of the capacity of these front-line workers, who are not only concerned about the basic needs of the populations that they serve, but also their own health and that of their families.”

In New York, where the Census response rate is lagging behind the national average, the Citizens Committee for Children of New York is engaged in a sophisticated and aggressive pivot. For example, on Census Day, the group’s Youth Action members held their Get Counted #Youth ActionDay2020, an event that included a “social media takeover” and a video blog on the reasons why young people should care about the Census.

And the group has organized a comprehensive how-to guide that provides instructions on how to organize a phone-banking event and how to incorporate Census messaging into your phone calls, video chats, and even into your voicemail messages.

In Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy is employing something equally innovative. With the help of a $5,000 grant, the group is planning a “Child Advocacy Chat” that will involve reaching out to as many as 30,000 Oklahomans by phone and inviting them to join the hour-long telephone town hall.

The meeting will feature the state’s Secretary of Commerce, who will explain how the Census effort in Oklahoma will help increase Medicaid funding in the state; a state legislator, who will discuss the state’s efforts to protect people from COVID-19, and a state health official, who will discuss the status of COVID-19 in the state and Medicaid accessibility to help with treatment.

Joe Dorman, the Institute’s Chief Executive Officer, said some people have expressed concern that the group’s planned robo calls inviting people to participate in the telephone town hall will run afoul of the Federal Communications Committee, which generally frowns upon such calls to mobile phones. But under a ruling issued by the FCC on March 20, certain calls that contain information about the coronavirus are allowed.

“Lists are scrubbed to remove mobile phone numbers, but sometimes the system is not 100 percent effective,” Dorman explains. “To be safe, we will raise health awareness and, in turn, the benefit of filling out the U.S. Census as a way to help provide additional funding into our state Medicaid system to provide for those in need of health care and how this might help the uninsured who qualify for Medicaid and might not be enrolled currently and run the risk of COVID-19.”

This year, the best-laid plans may indeed have gone awry, due to the unexpected arrival of an unwanted guest. Nonetheless, children’s advocates are scrambling and pivoting nationwide to ensure an accurate 2020 count.

2020 Census