Coronavirus Stymies Efforts to Count Every Idahoan in the 2020 Census

Note: Though the Census Bureau extended the deadline for counting everyone in the U.S. by two weeks because of disruptions caused by the coronavirus, on April 14, the White House asked to extend the deadline for another 120 days. Congress will need to vote on the request for it to take effect.

Since we reported in February why it’s important to count every Idaho resident in the 2020 Census, the social isolation required to fight the coronavirus has made that task much more difficult. Across the state, community leaders are trying to encourage all residents to respond to the Census. They had planned to hold public meetings, meet with individuals from groups mostly likely to respond, and reach out to dispersed college students not living at home to ensure they would be counted to their hometowns.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the 2010 Census undercounted Idaho residents by 31,000. Each of those uncounted individuals cost Idaho’s state and local governments an estimated $2,100 in federal aid over 10 years.

Last year, tribes, cities, counties and nonprofit organizations throughout Idaho formed Complete Census Committees to mobilize historically hard-to-count groups to respond to the 2020 Census. Gov. Brad Little established a statewide committee last year to ensure Idaho would achieve a fair, accurate and complete Census count, with special emphasis on enumerating members of historically undercounted population groups. These committees developed strategies for getting the word out about the importance and ease of answering the census questions. By early March, the peak of their mobilization efforts, coronavirus concerns forced an end to the planned gatherings.

Most of the people not counted in the 2010 Census fell into “hard-to-count” groups — college students, “nomads,” young children, Native Americans on reservations and people who were born in other countries.

Hard-to-count people fall into one or more of these categories:

  • Hard to Locate: Individuals who do not live in traditional houses, apartments and trailer parks such as homeless people and people who live in recreational vehicles. This also includes nomadic people who move frequently such as migrant workers, snowbirds and people who move among the houses of family members and friends.
  • Hard to Contact: Individuals who are difficult to physically access, including residents of gated communities and people experiencing homelessness.
  • Hard to Persuade: People who may be reluctant to participate in enumeration, including those who live off the grid, people who fear or distrust federal officials and those who feel that they are too busy to participate.
  • Hard to Interview: People who have barriers to getting correct information such as low literacy, mental illness or dementia, lack of a shared language or some types of disability

College Students

College students are hard to count, for a variety of reasons.

  • They tend to be nomadic and are typically 18 to 29 years old, the age group least likely to participate in the Census, according to a recent Pew Research Center study.
  • Some students fail to fill out a census questionnaire because they believe their parents will do it for them, but the Census counts people based on where they sleep most of the time during the period they answer – roughly April 1 – not their hometown.
  • Other students do not answer because they are afraid that it will affect their residency status for college even though it will not.
  • Foreign students may be fearful about their own or a family member’s immigration status or they come from countries where many people distrust government officials.

More than 60,000 people are full-time students at colleges and universities in Idaho.

The coronavirus pandemic threw a monkey wrench into efforts to getting accurate counts in late March. All the universities and colleges in Idaho began offering classes online around March 23 and encouraged students to leave campus if they could. In Moscow, for example, many University of Idaho students and Washington State University students who lived in Idaho — and probably some staff members — were not there on April 1. Even though citizens can respond to the Census online and follow-up counting will continue through mid-August, the expected undercount will shrink federal funding for Latah County for the next 10 years.

The Homeless and Other Nomads

  • People who move frequently, especially those who have no homes, are hard to locate.
  • Many homeless people make frequent changes where they sleep such as shelters, with family or friends and may even migrate to another town. Further complicating their response to the census are those who may have mental illnesses or cognitive issues and distrust of government officials.
  • Migrant workers, who travel from one place to another as seasonal needs of farmers and businesses change, are often undercounted. Also decreasing their response rate is fear of immigration authorities and other federal officials. Language barriers and inability to read also lead to undercounting.
  • Snowbirds are typically retirees who wish to avoid the snow and cold temperatures of northern winter, but maintain ties with family and friends by staying in their home areas the rest of the year. The Census period of late March and early April often is a time of transition for snowbirds as they move back to their homes, which add to the confusion. High level of seasonal nomads tend to reduce census response rates in Teton County, the McCall area of Valley County, the Sun Valley area of Blaine County, the Sandpoint and Priest River areas of Bonner County and the Idaho City area of Boise County.
  • Young adults often lead nomadic lifestyles, moving from one rented place to another, from the town where they attend schools to their hometowns or the places where they hold summer jobs. Some rotate from one friend’s couch to a bed at another friend’s and may never be counted.

Children Under 5 Years of Age

  • Young children tend to be uncounted. Many children left out of census counts live in multigenerational households. Other undercounted children are in homeless or migrant families or only temporarily live in their current households. According to the American Community Survey, 37,000 Idaho children — about 1 in 12 — are growing up in multigenerational households or ones headed by nonrelatives.

Native Americans

  • The Census Bureau estimates that Native Americans were undercounted by 5 percent in the 2010 Census, and it is working closely with tribes — including the five tribes with reservations in Idaho — to get everyone counted.
  • The relatively large Native American populations in Benewah and Nez Perce counties were the major reasons for their relatively low response rates in 2010, according to a study of the census by the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York.
  • Native American children are often not counted, which affects federal aid for educational and social assistance programs, including Head Start, school lunch, Medicaid and SNAP. Compounding the importance of counting Native American children is the larger percentage they make of the population. About 28 percent of the Native Americans living on Idaho’s five reservations are under 15 years of age. Of Idaho’s total population, 23 percent are in that age group, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

People born outside the U.S.

Foreign-born people who are not naturalized American citizens are less likely to answer the census. Idaho’s Complete Count Committee is paying special attention to mobilizing immigrants to respond to the 2020 Census. Barriers to their participation include:

  • Fear of federal officials. The decennial questionnaire will not ask respondents if they are U.S. citizens after the Supreme Court blocked the White House from including the question. A survey earlier this year by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that more than half of respondents thought the 2020 questionnaire asked about citizenship.
  • Language barriers. Many immigrant households have members who do not speak or read English well. Households can respond by phone and online in Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, French, Haitian, Creole, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Tagalog and Vietnamese.
  • Multigenerational households. A higher proportion of households with foreign-born members are multigenerational households, which have a higher tendency to underreport all their members — especially young children.
  • Nomadic lifestyles. Foreign-born workers make up most of the migrant workforce in the United States.

A consortium of Idaho nonprofit organizations have created a bilingual website Contamos Idaho Census to identify and address the needs for information in Idaho’s hard-to-count Latino populations.

More than 100,000 residents — about 6 percent of all Idaho residents — are foreign-born, according to the American Community Survey. About three in five foreign-born Idahoans are naturalized American citizens. The nine counties with the largest percentages of foreign-born residents are: Clark, 28 percent; Jerome, 16 percent; Minidoka, 15 percent; Power, 15 percent; Blaine, 15 percent; Lincoln, 14 percent; Gooding, 13 percent; Cassia, 11 percent; and Owyhee, 10 percent.

Complete count committees and anyone else interested in the 2020 Census can track the response rate of their communities every day at, regional economist
Idaho Department of Labor
(208) 799-5000 ext. 3984

See related article about the Census and Idaho’s Native American reservation populations.