Census Official: Mainers' Personally Identifying Data Is Confidential And Can't Be Shared

Jan 21, 2020

Starting this spring, census workers will fan out across the country to confirm addresses, distribute surveys and, in some rural communities, including here in Maine, go door-to-door.

This year there have been concerns about the Trump administration’s now-abandoned efforts to add a citizenship question, cybersecurity, and the accuracy of the count.

Lisa Moore, assistant regional census manager for the U.S. Census Bureau, spoke with All Things Considered host Nora Flaherty about what’s at stake.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Moore: The census ties to what we say are two general concepts: power and money. So the 2020 census will determine the congressional representation that each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives. So that’s the political stance on that. It also ties to state legislative districts as well as school districts and, depending upon the area, voting precincts. So it ties to a lot of our district boundaries and also the congressional representation in Congress. So that’s the power side of it.

From the other side, the money side, the 2020 census informs more than $675 billion every single year based upon the population for federally funded programs such as our SNAP program, WIC, National School Lunch Program, Head Start, Section 8 housing. We have our hospitals that tie directly to population count and receive federal funding. So hospitals, schools, roads and transportation.

A child right now — so to thinking about the school funding — might be two years old. So making certain that child is counted as a 2-year-old is really important because they will go through all of our educational programs up through middle school by 2030. So it’s really important that we encourage those to complete the census so that their community receives the resources it deserves.

Flaherty: I have read that there are concerns that some groups, specifically nonwhite households, may be undercounted and other groups overcounted. This is based on a study by the Urban Institute. How is the U.S. Census Bureau addressing those concerns?

We are working closely with our partners throughout the state. We have staff, our partnership specialists, that are working with community-based organizations, faith-based leaders, businesses and nonprofit organizations to ensure that everyone knows the value of participating as well as the importance for their community. So we are working with all groups to ensure that they’re very much prepared for the upcoming 2020 census, and just rehighlighting what it means for individuals, like the what’s-in-it-for-me position. We have partners that are hosting census solution workshops. So they’re brainstorming ideas, they’re collectively coming together to understand the challenges of different populations and seeing what will work to ensure that they are encouraged and actually complete the census questionnaire.

Contributing to the concerns that people do have about undercounting, overcounting, etc., is the citizenship question. The Supreme Court has blocked the use of that question in the 2020 census. But some communities are still worried about how the data is going to be used. How are you addressing that?

So with the citizenship question not being on the 2020 census, we need to encourage and remind everyone that as a federal employee, we are sworn to life to uphold confidentiality. So Title 13 federal law prohibits the Bureau — myself included, all of our staff that’s hired on the 2020 census and even our current survey staff — from sharing any information that would identify an individual with any other federal, state or local agencies. We can’t share information with any law enforcement agencies. We can’t share with Immigrations and Customs. So it’s really important for the public to be aware and rest assured that their data is safe and secure, and that we take that oath very seriously for the 2020 census and all of the Bureau’s programs.

Now I can see people saying, ‘That’s great, but the aggregate information could be used, because it’s public information, to, say, target ICE raids on certain communities,’ things like that. Has the citizenship question and the furor around it, has that made it harder for the Census Bureau to count people in 2020?

I do not think it poses a challenge on the 2020 census. On some of our other surveys and programs, we do ask that information already. So it’s not a challenge that we’ve needed to overcome. It’s something that we are dealing with on a regular basis, to encourage complete and accurate data. But we understand that is a concern. So we need to work with our trusted partners to share the message so that everybody knows it is not on the 2020 census, and just reemphasize the importance of completing the census in its entirety so that we can ensure the community receives the funding it deserves.