The Census Could Undercount People Who Don’t Have Internet Access

Purple cables are plugged into a router.
The digital divide leaves many unplugged, which could affect the 2020 census.

There has been no shortage of debate about the upcoming census. For weeks, we had a steady stream of “will they or won’t they” as the White House, the courts, and advocates grappled with the addition of a citizenship question on the 2020 census form. But lost in this back-and-forth is another problem that could lead to the undercounting of the population of the United States, which would affect how billions in federal funds are distributed. It involves broadband.

For the first time in our history, the U.S. census will prioritize collecting responses online. In practice, this means that most households will get a letter in the mail directing them to fill out a form on a website. For households that do not respond, letters with paper forms may follow, and a census taker could eventually be sent to collect the data in person. But in light of the effort to increase internet responses, there will be a reduced effort to call on homes, knock on doors, and get responses in the mail. In fact, the Census Bureau has planned to hire 125,000 fewer staff members than during the last go-around 10 years ago, because it is counting on this online effort, in conjunction with local resources, to secure participation.

At first glance, this makes sense. In the digital age, wearing out shoe leather to survey the population seems more than a little antiquated. Plus, a technology-first approach will save scarce resources and better reflects how so many of us live our constantly connected lives. But it also creates a problem for communities without reliable access to broadband.

As a member of the Federal Communications Commission, I know too many Americans lack broadband at home. According to the agency’s official statistics, about 21 million Americans live in areas without high-speed service, the bulk of them in rural areas. However, the situation is worse than official numbers suggest. The method we use to count which households have internet access and which do not has a serious flaw. It assumes that if a single customer can get broadband in a census block, then service must be available throughout the entire block. As a result, official data significantly overstates the presence of broadband nationwide. In fact, a study found that as many as 162 million people across the United States do not use the internet at broadband speeds. The gap between 21 million and 162 million raises big questions about broadband coverage. It turns the digital divide into a chasm.

On top of this, many households simply cannot afford broadband service. The Pew Research Center reports that nearly half of adults who earn less than $30,000 do not have broadband service at home. Moreover, roughly 1 in 4 Hispanic and black adults depend on smartphones for internet access. As a result, data caps can limit their ability to do much online. This, when compounded with the heated rhetoric that has already surrounded the census, may put participation by parts of the population in jeopardy.

So what does this look like on the ground? Consider a census tract in Poplar Grove, Utah. As the Salt Lake Tribune has reported, census officials describe this area as one of the most difficult communities to count. This is a place where populations have been hard to survey even with traditional efforts. Many households speak limited English, and many more are low-income. During the last census, 1 out of every 3 residents was not counted during the initial round of responses. As a result, extensive outreach from canvassers on the ground was required to ensure the full community was counted. This time around, according to the Tribune, estimates suggest that 1 in 9 residents do not have access to the internet at home. What happens to this community—and so many more like it—is going to play a big part in the accuracy of our upcoming count.

Getting this right matters. Census data affects congressional districts and representation. It also informs how hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funds are distributed. So undercounting could mean that states are shortchanged when it comes to federal dollars that provide funding for education, health care, agriculture, and investment in infrastructure. In short, it can mean the difference between communities growing and thriving or being left behind.

The constitutional challenge of surveying the United States for the census is daunting. What we choose to ask can have real consequences for participation, as discussion over the citizenship question suggests. But how we choose to ask is also important. The digital age has not reached everyone everywhere. Our duty is to count every person, whether or not they have access to or can afford the internet. If we’re not careful, we run the risk of having those who lack a connection cut off from the count.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.