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Census Bureau To Have Far Fewer Local Offices In 2020 Than Last National Count


One year from today, people will start getting letters from the government about filling out the 2020 census. It will be part of a nationwide campaign to count every person living in the U.S. The Census Bureau has begun opening new offices around the country to coordinate workers for the census, but some are worried there won't be enough offices to carry out an accurate headcount. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Ready or not, the 2020 Census is coming and setting up shop in communities including Providence, R.I.

JEFF BEHLER: So we won't go too far back in here. This is where we have our...

WANG: This is a restricted area.

BEHLER: Correct.

WANG: Jeff Behler is the Census Bureau's regional director for the New England states. He leads me on a tour of one of the country's first 2020 census offices. They'll help manage around a half-million census workers around the country.

BEHLER: We get them set up for fingerprinting and then probably most importantly, once they're on board, pay them.

WANG: Right now, I see a lot of empty cubicles, but eventually, they'll be filled.

BEHLER: Exactly.

WANG: And eventually, the bureau is planning to open more than 200 of these temporary offices. That's about half the number the government set up for the last headcount in 2010. Behler points out the Census Bureau is boosting the number of outreach workers compared to the last headcount. But he says the streamlining of offices for 2020 is in large part because next year's census will be available online. For the first time, all households can submit their information through a website, and census workers will get their job assignments and collect people's information using smartphones rather than filling out paper forms.

BEHLER: In 2010, we would have had people scurrying in and out all day, you know, turning in payrolls for their team, getting new workload.

WANG: Literally, just stacks of paper.

BEHLER: Yeah, absolutely. And that's one of the great efficiencies that's created by the technology that they're putting in place for 2020.

JIMMY PANETTA: You know, I'm all for efficiency through technology, but, damn it, I do not want to sacrifice accuracy for technology.

WANG: That was U.S. Representative Jimmy Panetta of California. He's led more than 50 other Democrats in the House who wrote a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross who oversees the Census Bureau. Panetta says they're concerned that fewer local offices for the 2020 count could mean not enough support for the door knockers who make sure the count includes every person living in the country, especially in rural areas and communities of color.

PANETTA: I see it firsthand in my communities in the Central Coast where they understand what's going on with the policies from this administration that are anti-immigrant. And so there's a distrust right now on the streets of the federal government.

WANG: The Commerce Department has not responded to NPR's questions about Panetta's letter. Last year, the department's internal watchdog questioned whether cutting the number of census offices can save as much money as a Census Bureau expects. It also questioned whether the offices can manage all of the visits census workers will have to make to households that don't respond to the census themselves. Those households pose a challenge that Marta Martinez knows well.

MARTA MARTINEZ: Knocking on doors and people just don't want to answer. You could tell people were home, but it was a challenge.

WANG: Martinez was one of Rhode Island's top outreach specialists hired by the Census Bureau in 2010.

MARTINEZ: I sincerely believe in the power of numbers, numbers that exist on paper.

WANG: Census numbers determine how many congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state gets. They also guide how hundreds of billions of federal tax dollars are distributed for public services. Martinez says she's worried that Rhode Island won't have two local census offices like it did for the last count.

What does it mean that Rhode Island will have one less office?

MARTINEZ: Well, it means less people working there. Those were people that went home and talked about it. You talked to your neighbors the importance of you doing this job that only happens every 10 years.

WANG: Even with fewer census offices, though, the Census Bureau still needs to hire around a half-million workers for 2020. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.