Inside the U.S. Census test that no one knows about

The test run is especially key for 2020: This is the first Census that won’t rely on pen and paper.
May 24, 2018, 8:17pm

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The next national census is just two years away, so the Census Bureau is preparing for the main event by running a dress rehearsal in Providence County, Rhode Island.

The only problem? Not many people seem to have any idea it’s going on right now.

And while the test run is always important, this year’s is even more crucial. Congress’s refusal to adequately fund the Bureau forced it to cancel the two other end-to-end tests, in West Virginia and Washington state, leaving Providence County as the lone trial run.


The Providence dress rehearsal is also the only chance the Bureau has to test its new digital systems. For the first time, people will be able to fill out the census online, and door-to-door census workers will collect data on smartphones. Yes, the 2020 census will be the first one that isn’t done by pen and paper.

The Census Bureau had wanted this to happen ahead of the 2010 census, but the test run was so disastrous they went back to the paper forms. This year’s dress rehearsal appears to be going better. Jeff Behler, the regional director for the Census Bureau overseeing the test run in Providence, said, “There's been no showstoppers so far.”

Behler said they’d received a 40 percent response rate online as of May 1st, although it wasn’t clear who had responded. At a Providence Complete Count Committee meeting, a group organized by city and local leaders to encourage participation in the test run, many questioned the Bureau’s efforts to reach so-called “hard to count” communities.

“I would caution against undue sense of optimism,” Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza said of the 40 percent response rate. “The key now is the difficult to reach communities. Whereas before it took a knock on the door, this time it takes two, along with paid media outreach and continued attempts to make sure they feel comfortable enough to answer the questions.”

But the bureau’s 2018 budget, which covers the test run, did not include any funding for marketing or advertising. So people across Providence County are trying to spread the word themselves. Alan Gunther, a librarian at the Smith Hill Library, is offering coupons for $5 off late fees to anyone that fills out the test at the library.

On top of the budgetary and technological challenges, there’s another wrinkle for 2020: in March, the Trump administration announced that a question asking about citizenship would be added to the 2020 census. The question isn’t on the test run — it was added too late — but Elorza stressed that it “gets muddled all together.”

“As if that doesn’t make the situation difficult and critical enough, we know here in Rhode Island, we’re on the cusp of losing a seat in Congress,” said Elorza. “This test run is not only important to us, but it’s valuable to rest of country.

This segment originally aired May 17, 2018 on VICE News Tonight on HBO.