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Government Checks Addresses To Prepare For Census


We're about five months away from the official start of the 2020 census. But census workers have already begun to knock on doors, part of the final preparations for a headcount that determines how political representation and federal funding will be shared for the next decade. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang explains why getting a good count begins with the right addresses.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: The 2020 census is built on more than 100 million addresses of where every person lives in the U.S. The federal government is checking those addresses now so it knows where to mail census instructions and send out workers next year.

JOSEPH SALVO: If you do not make it to the address list, you don't exist.

WANG: You don't get counted.

SALVO: You effectively don't get counted.

WANG: Joseph Salvo is New York City's chief demographer. He heads the office in charge of making sure every home in the country's largest city gets on that list...

Some people call this the third Chinatown in New York City.

SALVO: Yup - after lower Manhattan and after Flushing.

WANG: ...Including in this Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park, one of the fastest growing parts in New York.

We're passing by a hair salon...

SALVO: Shoes - that's right.

WANG: ...The fashion boutiques.

And nestled in between and above many of these storefronts are apartments that can be hard to spot.

SALVO: So we're going to head north. We're going to start at that corner.

WANG: Salvo gave me a preview of the kind of training his office is providing to Census Bureau workers before they head out to canvass for addresses in New York. But not every local government has invested these kinds of resources to prepare for the 2020 census. In general, the bureau is relying on records from the postal service and information gathered by local governments. But Salvo says some homes - you won't find them in the records.

SALVO: So look. You got two doorbells, but you got a third.

WANG: Wait. I don't - where's the third doorbell? Oh, OK. I see.

That means census workers have to check their records against subtle clues, like multiple electric meters and side entrances.

SALVO: OK, Hansi. Go look to the left.

WANG: I see. There's four - looks like four mailboxes in the lobby.

But I was wrong. One of Salvo's staffers, Steve Wolkwitz, a geographer with New York City's Department of City Planning, corrected me.

STEVE WOLKWITZ: Actually five - you see it from here.

WANG: Oh, five mailboxes.

WOLKWITZ: Yeah. You can see five.

WANG: I got to look through the window there.

SALVO: So that's what we do. Sometimes, we have to peer into doorways.

WANG: Salvo adds, all of this work is for getting good statistics. And, like for an individual's census responses, there are laws in place that prevent this address information from being shared outside of census work. The Census Bureau's canvassing is expected to continue through mid-October. And for the first time, the bureau is only planning to verify about a third of the country's home addresses in person. For the rest, they're using images from satellites in space.

PAM PERLICH: Out in remote areas, out in the West, you can see settlements that otherwise may not even have a street address.

WANG: Pam Perlich is the director of demographic research at the University of Utah's Gardner Policy Institute. And she says satellite images makes sense for rural areas where there aren't a lot of trees or where communities haven't changed that much. Still, Perlich is worried about parts of Utah that are growing in ways that cameras in space won't be able to see.

PERLICH: You know, you can't look through the rooftops. And so this just compounds that probability that people are going to be missed.

WANG: Another reason census workers may miss some addresses is the current political climate.

CESAR ESPINOSA: For some families, it's just the fear factor is so embedded in them that they're just not going to open the door.

WANG: Cesar Espinosa is the executive director of FIEL, an immigrant advocacy group based in Houston. They're planning to talk up how the count could help bring federal funding for public services to the area. But Espinosa says, recent reports of raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement are turning some people off from the census.

ESPINOSA: I know that this climate that we're facing now will have a devastating impact to our communities. At the end of the day, we could miss out on millions of dollars in resources.

WANG: Back in New York, Joseph Salvo shows me another challenge to compiling a complete set of addresses in time for the census.

SALVO: Holy cow. This is new construction.

SALVO: New homes expected to be finished by the start of the count. This fall, tribal, state and local officials do have a chance to update the Census Bureau about new construction in communities like Brooklyn's Sunset Park.

SALVO: This is a neighborhood that is under a lot of population pressure. It's a place where people want to live. And this pressure it produces, subdivision - legal and not...

WANG: And that makes it hard to count.


WANG: But that work doesn't start until 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.