What can Census 2020 teach us about online communication and the digital divide?

This week, the Daily Yonder posts an interesting look at moving the Census online. I wrote about the process at the beginning of the year and most of us have seen it as it rolls out. The Census assumed that 80 percent of us would want to take the Census online. So they sent cards to us. And then not everyone complied so they sent more. Still no movement in some areas. So apparently they sent paper version that look just like the reminders people had been ignoring.

Of course the situation was made much worse by COVID. Ironically the Census thought they could change society as COVID has by just expecting people to move to online communication without giving them a choice. It hasn’t worked…

The digital divide is far more complex than not having the availability of broadband infrastructure where one lives or works. Mere availability is a significant yet separate problem from personal affordability of broadband. Which is distinct from actual adoption and practical use of the expensive, fee-for-service communications infrastructure. All of which also require additional, expensive tools including fairly new hardware and very recent software, and a place where they are available.  Clearly, we have a long way to go to eliminate the challenges that will enable everyone to more fully embrace and participate in all things digital — including Census 2020.

This is why consumer advocates relentlessly explain to policymakers and companies that digital-only communications are not for everyone. Printed and digital options are necessary for full inclusion and broader participation in commerce and community. Collectively, we need to appreciate that so many of our neighbors report difficulties in accessing online technologies, have security concerns about online fraud or require paper communications for practical reasons. The digital divide is not limited to older adults, low-income households without computers or broadband service, people in rural areas where unreliable internet access is common, minority populations in urban areas with theoretical availability but not affordable access, and the one in four people living with a disability of some kind that are three times more likely to say that they never go online.

I share this for two reasons. First it’s a good reminder to those of us in the digital world that there are those who do not live here – some because of availability of broadband, devices or skills and some due more to choice, privacy or other concerns. So when we want to reach them, we need to give options. Sending paper census forms at the onset (with a link to take online) may have increased participation and at this point saved money.

Secondly, there are efforts to extend the deadline for the Census, which may be interesting to anyone working with a population they feel is going to be underrepresented for any reason. (And Census results will most likely have an impact on future broadband funding.)

The future of a vibrant, inclusive and fully counted America needs an accurate Census 2020 that is not irreparably damaged by unwavering plans and artificial deadlines. Our country cannot afford a lack of will to learn and adapt under urgent circumstances — and must take the additional steps with extended timelines to assure fully representative results. Keep Me Posted urges Congress to immediately pass legislation to extend the legal deadline for Census 2020 — and implores the Census Bureau to send a paper form to all non-responsive residences in an envelope clearly marked “Final Notice: Paper Form Enclosed — Postage Paid” along with robust and safe in-person measures to count communities historically known to be a challenge to include as required by our Nation’s founding document.

 

This entry was posted in Digital Divide, Government by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

Librarian who follows rural broadband in MN and good uses of new technology (blandinonbroadband.org), hosts a radio show on MN music (mostlyminnesota.com), supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota (elimstrongtowershelters.org) and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

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