An Internet Census and the Digital Divide

by Terri Ann Lowenthal

In my last post, I gave a shout-out to my father, who I fear could be overlooked by a largely electronic census, given dad’s likely nonagenarian status in 2020. Older Americans uncomfortable with today’s gadgets are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to population groups that the Census Bureau might have difficulty reaching through the Internet.

It does seem like everyone is walking around with a smartphone glued to their ear, or reading their news or the latest Stephen King novel on a tablet. But the hard facts — gleaned from a Census Bureau survey on Internet usage — tell a different story.

In Exploring the Digital Nation: Home Broadband Internet Adoption in the United States, the Commerce Department reported that more than three-fourths (77 percent) of U.S. households own a computer, be it handheld or sitting on a desk or lap. But computer ownership and broadband adoption are not spread evenly across household income levels, race and ethnicity, age, level of education, disability status, and geographic location.

Consider a few of the reports specific findings:

  • Seventy-three percent of urban (metropolitan area) households use the Internet, compared to 62 percent in rural (non-metropolitan area) households. Seventy percent of urban households have broadband access; 57 percent of rural households do.
  • More than four-fifths of Asian households and roughly three-quarters of non-Hispanic White households use the Internet. Less than 60 percent of Black, American Indian and Alaska Native, and Hispanic households can access the Internet at home.
  • Forty-six percent of households with incomes below $25,000 have home Internet access, compared to 84 percent of households in the $50,000 – $75,000 income bracket. There also are significant broadband adoption differences by household income: Nearly 90 percent of households in the $75,000 – $100,000 income range access the Internet using broadband; only 43 percent of households in under-$25,000 group do.
  • Less than half of household heads with a disability use the Internet, compared to three-quarters of those without a disability.

A more fine-grained analysis of the data revealed greater variability by socio-economic characteristic; the department reported, for example, that less than 30 percent of Black rural homes whose head of household lacked a high school diploma use a computer. Commerce Under Secretary (and Deputy Secretary-designate) Rebecca Blank told reporters at a press briefing (11/8/11) that the large gaps in access to broadband and Internet use were “striking and not something we expected to see.”

For census apostles, the most worrisome aspect of the disparate access to computers and reliable Internet is that, to a significant degree, many population groups lagging behind technologically are historically harder to count in the census and prone to disproportionate undercounts. Furthermore, a quarter of households without Internet access cite affordability as a major barrier to this service. Current economic trends do not favor better financial circumstances for lower income households.

Earlier this fall, I mused about the lightening pace of technological change, which will present significant challenges for the Census Bureau as it designs a less-costly enumeration for 2020 over an eight-year span. No doubt, access to computers and the Internet will increase across all demographic subgroups with time. But as new technologies emerge, differential access to those tools is likely to persist.

All of these factors pose significant challenges for the Census Bureau, as it tries to balance the obvious advantages technology offers for ease of participation, operational efficiency and cost containment, with the need to count people who cannot or will not respond electronically. (To complicate the census planning process, U.S. Postal Service budget woes might slow the delivery of first-class mail across the country; Saturday delivery might also be a historical footnote by decade’s end.)

So, yes, I agree with Census Director Robert Groves that 2020 must be a “multi-mode census. … We must move beyond the mailback questionnaire and the personal interview … to ensure that the response options for the census reflect the communication platforms that people are using.” (Testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services, and International Security, April 6, 2011.) But some of those modes will be more costly and traditional than others, and Congress must be mindful of the digital divide as it decides how much money to spend on planning and execution of the next decennial count.

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From the Census Project family to yours:
Happy holidays and best wishes for 2012!
(REMEMBER: The next census is only eight years away!)

Know Your Customers (All of Them)

by Terri Ann Lowenthal

Earlier this fall, business watchers were abuzz about the fallout from Netflix’s decision to separate its Internet streaming and DVD services into two distinct accounts. “How Netflix Lost 800,000 Members, and Good Will,” screamed a New York Times headline (10/24/11). “Netflix prides itself on its analytical, data-driven approach to making decisions,” the article explained. “But it made a classic business misstep. In its reliance on data and long-term strategy, the company underestimated the unquantifiable emotions of subscribers who still want those little red envelopes, even if they forget to ever watch the DVDs inside.”

That got me to thinking about the Census Bureau’s road from mail to cyberspace, a path which is now inevitable, given stern directives, coupled with tight budget reins, from Congress.

Netflix’s CEO reportedly told shareholders he was not sure if focus groups reviewed the proposed account changes before the company unveiled them. The New York Times article later opined, “How Netflix came to be so out of touch with its customers is a cautionary tale for other companies that try to transform to new media from old.”

Federal lawmakers have concluded that Americans will embrace electronic response to the next census with a vengeance, with traditional mail or hand-delivery almost an afterthought. Of course, Congress sometimes — how shall I put this tactfully? — gets it wrong. And the people’s representatives haven’t exactly been generous with funding to ensure appropriately comprehensive research and testing of how Americans of all ages, races and ethnicities, incomes, and places of abode feel about the pending changes.

My father is 80, retired, active on boards and in community and political affairs. Given the family genes, he’s likely to be around for the next population tally. But email? Can you spell F-A-X? He swears by it. Cell phone? Never had one. In March 2020, Dad had better get a nice white envelope bearing the official seal of the U.S. Census Bureau in his traditional silver suburban mailbox, along with a postage-paid return envelope. Otherwise, he might miss being counted in his ninth decennial enumeration.

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Up next: An Internet Census and the Digital Divide

Back to the Census Future?

[Ed. note: Welcome back to the Census Project Blog, which will resume occasional posting on several critical census issues over the coming months.]

by Terri Ann Lowenthal

Federal statistics: They don’t get no respect!

Last week, Senate appropriators, mindful of the cutthroat competition to slash federal programs more than the next guy, thoughtfully suggested that the U.S. Census Bureau could design, plan and execute the 2020 census for the amount it spent on the 2000 count. Yes, you read that correctly. While keeping costs in line with the just-completed 2010 enumeration would be good, the appropriations panel wrote in its explanation of the Fiscal Year 2012 Commerce Department spending bill (S. Rpt. 112-78), paring the price tag to match 2000, without adjusting for inflation, would win a gold star.

The 2000 census cost almost $7 billion. My economist friends tell me the Senate directive would only give the Census Bureau the equivalent of $4 billion in 2000 dollars, 43 percent less than the Census 2000 budget, to enumerate 60 million more people and 22 million more housing units than it did 20 years earlier. (The 2010 count, which battled the symptoms of a punishing recession and post-9/11 world, cost $13 billion in current dollars.)

People (all 309 million of you!), I know you are thinking one of two things. Have Senators lost their minds? Or, won’t all the new-fangled technology allow the Census Bureau to count people for a fraction of the cost? Let’s examine both propositions.

First, the state of mind of our distinguished elected representatives. To be fair, the budget process has become so convoluted and devoid of any logical progression that even the most levelheaded lawmakers can be excused for their nostalgia. But $4 billion? That was the price tag for the 1990 census. You know, the one with the highest recorded disproportionate undercount of Black Americans. The one with the lower-than-projected mail response rate, maybe thanks to a data processing machine-friendly questionnaire that looked (and read) like an SAT test. The first census to be measurably less accurate than the one before it. 1990 was the last census to advertise with 2:00 a.m. public service announcements; to ignore the vital role of community-based organizations in promoting participation; to build address lists without substantial input from local officials.

The Senate Appropriations Committee was actually off to a reasonably good start when it allocated $943 million for Census Bureau operations in the fiscal year that starts October 1. The amount is 8 percent ($81 million) below the president’s request but $89 million more than House appropriators deemed sufficient for the nation’s premier statistical agency. (A spokeswoman for House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers rebuked the Census Bureau for “just complet[ing] a costly census that was riddled with questionable management decisions,” saying the committee was saving money for “higher priority programs” (Huffington Post, 7/15/11). Meanwhile, the same committee applauded the bureau’s request to promote and market ongoing surveys, “given the successful use of these programs in the 2010 decennial census” (H. Rpt. 112-169). Go figure.)

Senators clearly heard the uproar from an impressive range of data users when the Census Bureau said it would cancel next year’s economic census if Congress doesn’t come up with more money than the House was considering. They directed the agency to maintain the quinquennial survey of business and industry while focusing reductions on “periodic censuses and agency-wide administrative cost savings.” Never mind that the economic census is a periodic activity or that the census director announced a money-saving move to close six of 12 regional census offices months ago. In other words, rob Peter to pay Paul, because you aren’t getting enough funding for both. Like I said, no respect.

Which leads us to our second question: Won’t the Internet or other technology-based options for answering the census and gathering data in the field bring down costs substantially? Undoubtedly, modernizing the enumeration will help the Census Bureau keep costs under control. The bureau is testing Internet response in the ongoing American Community Survey, with promising results so far. The Washington Post reported (4/5/11) that 20 percent of Canadians responded by Internet in that nation’s last census; statistical experts hope twice that many will use the Web in this year’s Canadian count to achieve a cost-savings.

But the Census Bureau will have to spend some money now to save money later. Census Director Robert Groves told a Senate oversight panel last spring that the agency “know[s] it must innovate if we are to remain useful and relevant to the country. [T]his innovation is not likely to be funded by added resources; we must become more efficient.” The bureau requested a reasonable $67 million in FY2012 to start a three-year research and testing initiative to modernize and streamline the 2020 census.

Yet the Senate is telling the agency to cut back on census activities other than the economic census. That pretty much leaves wrap-up of the 2010 count or research on improving methods for 2020 on the chopping block. The bureau could halt efforts to measure the accuracy of the 2010 census and end the program that allows challenges to a city’s housing and population numbers (which adds few changes to the results, but tell that to the mayors!). I am having trouble following the logic here, given that Senate funders want the Census Bureau to dramatically reduce the cost of planning the nation’s largest peacetime activity while exercising a “unique opportunity” to “streamlin[e] operations, eliminate[e] wasteful processes … and tak[e] better advantage of technology.” The Census Bureau last year proposed an initiative to update the nation’s address list throughout the decade, potentially saving the hundreds of millions of dollars it would cost to confirm 100 percent of addresses right before the next census starts. Congress won’t cough up the modest amount of money requested for the new program.

I think I’m getting one of my famous census headaches. Maybe I’ll channel Rip Van Winkle and wake up in time for the 2030 count.