In Barrio Obrero Marina, a working class neighborhood of San Juan, the U.S. Census Bureau said that fewer than one in 10 households had answered the 2020 census by mid-August. Community leader Carmen Febres Alméstica set out to see if the government was right.
Wearing a face mask under the midday sun, Febres Alméstica, who chairs a local residents’ organization, began on Argentina Street.
A woman named Raquel Pérez, her dog barking non-stop behind her small entrance gate, greeted Febres Alméstica from a balcony. Pérez said her daughter filled out a census form for her. She assured Febres Alméstica that several of her neighbors also answered the census and that she received two visits from census workers after completing the process.
On 14th Street, a man sweeping in front of a bar closed by the pandemic said he filed a census form online. A man selling fruits and vegetables on Rexach Avenue said he filled the census out, as did three of his customers. Another man pantomimed typing on a computer to convey that his daughter completed the census online; he indicated that he did so by mail. A woman upstairs said she answered the census by phone two months before but keeps receiving letters from the Census Bureau.
Febres Alméstica was hard-pressed to find more than a handful of people who failed to answer the census on their own initiative in a barrio where the Census Bureau said only 7% had done so.
“It’s weird,” said Mariolga Juliá Pacheco, a community social worker who accompanied Febres Alméstica on the walk. “I live in Trujillo Alto and I filled it out online, and they have visited me four times. Could it be that they aren’t registering it?” Juliá Pacheco asked.
The Census Bureau said Puerto Rico’s initial response rate for the census was only about 30% as of August, the lowest among U.S. states and Puerto Rico. About a month later, the bureau said it had succeeded in “enumerating” more than 90% of Puerto Rico households. According to statistics on the bureau’s website, its door-knocking efforts in recent weeks boosted coverage here more than anywhere in the U.S..
But as the decennial count hurtles to a close on September 30, interviews by Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism show the Census Bureau’s system for registering and tracking responses was plagued by problems. And the federal agency confirmed that the issues about which Puerto Rico residents have raised concerns are not unique to the island.
Census officials cite the repeat contacts as evidence that the process has been thorough. At the same time, the center’s reporting presents uncertainties about how many Puerto Rico and U.S. residents were counted after submitting forms — and whether follow-ups achieved their intended result. The count determines which communities will receive billions of dollars in federal aid and how many congressional seats will each state get over the next decade. In the case of Puerto Rico, which lacks a congressional seat, census information defines local legislative representation.
Giselle Laffitte, the Census Bureau’s spokeswoman for Puerto Rico, said the agency is aware of residents’ concerns. “We’ve heard that people are a little uncomfortable because they’ve been visited twice or three times,” Laffitte said.
Jeff Behler, the Census Bureau’s director for the region that includes Puerto Rico and eight Eastern states, said residents of New York and Massachusetts who submitted census forms have also complained about receiving visits despite filing census forms. “It’s everywhere,“ Behler said.
Behler said many of the visits are to verify and resolve ambiguities about addresses for people who responded. For example, he said, the bureau’s records might show Unit 1 whereas the resident’s census response listed it as Apartment A. The bureau will send someone to make sure they are one and the same.
“We would rather err on the side of making sure everyone gets counted than on the side that we may miss someone,” Behler said.
He described the door-knocking effort in Puerto Rico as a success. Asked whether an enumeration rate approaching 100% was accurate and free from double-counting, Behler said it was.
“The people have responded,” Behler said. “They are opening their doors. They understand the importance of the census.”
But the failure of census forms to go through cleanly the first time has bred confusion. It’s unclear how much information door-knockers have been able to collect from families who told them they’d already filled out forms or received repeat visits.
Three Puerto Rico population experts told the investigative journalism center — known as CPI in Spanish — that they also filed forms and received follow-up visits telling them they were not in the system.
“They even gave me a confirmation number after completing the transaction,” demographer Raúl Figueroa said. “But they came to visit me because the house did not appear in the system. I have a friend who has filled it out four times.”
“If I had 50 cases in eight hours, easily, at least 20 of those cases, sometimes more, would say, ‘I already filled it out,’” said one of the census takers, all of whom asked not to be identified.
“They tell you specifically how they did it: by mail, by phone, online,” the census taker said of people who had responded. “In some cases, they even gave you the confirmation number.”
Some census takers said that they would try to gather information from families even if they said they had already filed. But in some cases, they said, they did not.
Laffitte, the bureau spokeswoman, said Census workers are advised not to talk to the press.
Low response rate in Puerto Rico?
U.S. Census Bureau data suggest that it was not until August, when the “Non-Response Follow-Up” phase began, that the majority of Puerto Rico residents responded to the Census.
But Census takers interviewed by CPI questioned whether, in fact, there was such a low participation rate by Puerto Ricans before the follow-up contacts began.
“What I saw, in my experience and in conversation with others at work, is that the common thing was that people had already responded,” a census taker said, describing his experience working on the ground from July to August.
Information from the 2020 census will determine which communities across the U.S. will receive more than $675 billion in federal funds for roads, public safety, hospitals and schools, among others, according to the Census Bureau.
Puerto Rico was at a disadvantage from the beginning.
After Hurricanes Irma and María devastated the island in 2017, the Census Bureau last year excluded the territory from its ordinary process of verifying and updating addresses. The federal agency decided it would verify addresses in Puerto Rico in 2020 while delivering questionnaires to residents by hand.
Only about 5% of homes in the United States receive such in-person deliveries because natural disasters and other factors have made them hard to reach by mail. In Puerto Rico this year, it was slated to be 100%. And March’s coronavirus quarantine interrupted the hand deliveries everywhere.
It wasn’t until the end of May that questionnaire delivery and address verification began. In just over a month and in the midst of a pandemic, the census team managed a process that was intended to last at least three months.
“They say we’re going to have the resources for a better education, for a better delivery of health services, for a better quality of life, but people aren’t experiencing that,” said Mario Núñez Mercado, president of a government entity working on social and economic development in the communities adjacent to Caño Martín Peña, a 3.75-mile-long tidal channel in San Juan. “So there’s a dichotomy between what’s said and what’s happening at the citizen level.”
Núñez Mercado’s agency is relying on an accurate count to secure federal funds for 65% of the $255 million price tag for dredging the nearby channel. He said it’s essential to establish, for example, whether the project will keep wastewater out of the homes of 15,000 residents versus 26,000 residents. A bigger population carries more weight in funding formulas. And, he said, political leaders know a bigger population means more pressure from voters.
“There has already been a decline, and that may have an effect when prioritizing the dredging project — if we do it now or put it off for another 10 years,” Núñez Mercado said.
In spite of the obstacles, many people in Puerto Rico say they readily answered the census.
But that didn’t guarantee anything.
Alberto Velázquez, project manager of Census 2020 at the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics, has personal experience with glitches in the system. He filled his form out online and then received a visit from a census taker, asking for his information.
Velázquez said one problem may arise when people file their census forms online or on paper without listing the unique ID number assigned by the Census Bureau. Including the identifier isn’t required. But Velázquez said without it, the bureau must match the person’s address information with data in its computers. That could create lags in delivering information to mobile apps that tell census door-knockers on the island where to go.
“It seems that in the processing, the system they have and that they manage internally takes time to tell them that that household has already been listed,” he said.
Demographer Raúl Figueroa told the CPI that he filled out the census on March 12, the first day it was available online.
Just a few weeks ago, a census taker visited him at his home because it appeared he had not participated. Figueroa said he hadn’t submitted a census ID because the Census Bureau hadn’t issued him one yet. But he said his address is not complicated and the bureau should have been able to match it to internal records in the intervening months.
Figueroa’s friend and fellow demographer, Judith Rodríguez, said she completed the paper form twice, and still a census worker went to her home twice to request her information.
“He asked me the questions, etcetera,” Rodríguez said. “A few days later, the taker returned and asked me for the information again.”
Reaching missing households
If the initial count faced troubles, so was the follow-up in recent weeks, according to census takers interviewed by CPI.
Faced with people who told them they’d submitted a form by mail or online, the workers had a choice.
They could enter a notation in their mobile apps indicating a family had already answered the census. In this case, the address would show up again later as still incomplete. Sometimes, the workers would return for a second visit, and sometimes they would not, they said.
Alternatively, the census worker could take the household’s information anew and enter it into the system. This seemed to complete the process. But sometimes it wasn’t easy to persuade people to share information they thought they’d already supplied to the Census.
“I’d always seek to fill it out” to ensure the person’s home was checked off the list one census taker said. “Many people would do it again. Only a minority would say no, sometimes with attitude, because they had already filled it out. But they kept showing up in the system.”
Behler, the census regional director, acknowledged census takers have had to improvise in the field.
“I’ve certainly heard it from enumerators stateside as well, jumping to conclusions: ‘Well, the system didn’t save your data,’” Behler said. “They’re coming up with their own ways of kind of explaining, you know, when someone’s yelling at them, ‘Why are you knocking on my door?’”
Although the census bureau’s Laffitte said the mobile app used to enter data in the field is easy to use and takes only five minutes to collect information, census takers said they found it difficult in practice.
They also had to contend with the island’s proliferation of short-term rental properties, which can create confusion about how to count them. The number of units on Airbnb, for example, has tripled in the past five years. Up to a quarter of homes in places such as Old San Juan and Culebra are listed on short-term rental platforms.
In addition, the census workers had to contend with the risk of COVID-19. They said they received one or two cloth masks, a few small hand sanitizers, and zero access to screening tests.
Laffitte, the Census Bureau spokeswoman, said the agency has protocols and training for field work during the pandemic and that it provides protective material to all employees. She was unable to offer details such as the type of material or the quantity and frequency with which it is distributed.
As a sign of completeness in the 2020 census, the bureau’s Behler cited the high percentage of households that have been counted on their own initiative or through follow-up interviews.
But researchers at the City University of New York suggest caution in drawing conclusions from this “enumeration rate.” According to the university’s “Hard to Count” website, the number “tells us very little about the quality and accuracy of the count.”
Gretchen Sierra, an executive committee member of the Puerto Rico National Agenda, a nonprofit urging Puerto Ricans to respond to the questionnaire, said takers would “get information, but not necessarily all of it” during the follow-up stage. She questioned whether Puerto Rico residents “enumerated” in this phase answered all of the census questions, which would affect the quality of the information collected.
Back in Barrio Obrero Marina, Febres Alméstica, the community leader who went looking for people who hadn’t filed a census form, eventually found a few. One was a woman named Petra Martínez.
Martínez recently sought out a census worker who could help her get her information recorded.
The worker said she couldn’t do anything for her.
She wasn’t on the list of homes to be visited.
CONTRIBUTING: This story is a collaboration between the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo y USA Today. Data reporters Theresa Diffendal and Mark Nichols provided data analysis from USA TODAY.