How the census will reach the new urban millennials

With young urban renters unlikely to respond to nudges by mail, phone or strangers at the door, the Census Bureau is developing social media and other internet publicity that will encourage potential respondents to log in and fill out a form.

This article originally appeared on Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

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WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Census Bureau has a problem that some parents of millennials will recognize: These adults often don’t call. They don’t write. If you want to reach them, you have to use social media.

The 2010 way -- mailing a paper form with a follow-up knock on the door or call to a landline -- just won’t work for many of the residents the bureau needs to find. State and local governments are helping the agency work to avoid undercounts that sap funding and political power.

“Mail? I feel like that’s a dead thing,” said Tim Slayton, 36, a Washington, D.C., resident for 18 years. “And I don’t have a lot of people randomly knocking at my front door, so I would be a little weirded out. ‘Census Bureau!’ It sounds like a joke. It sounds like you just want me to open my door. So I probably wouldn’t.”

The Census Bureau is learning some lessons long known to those trying to reach young people, said Ben Varquez, managing director of Youth Marketing Connection, which conducts marketing campaigns for businesses and nonprofits in Boston and Washington.

“Not even our nonprofits and associations are relying on direct mail or phone calls, when it comes to millennials and Gen Z,” Varquez said. “U.S. mail is inconvenient and archaic. And it’s tough to get people to get on their phone browser or laptop to fill out online forms, when you’re prompting them with a piece of mail. It’s just too many steps.”

Millennials, generally those born between 1981 and 1996, and Gen Z, those born afterward, make up an estimated 35 percent of the U.S. adult population. States that undercount them risk losing everything from seats in Congress to billions of dollars in federal funding. The trick is to find them and get them to respond.

Eleanor Janhunen, a 25-year-old who manages a jewelry store in the gentrifying NoMa neighborhood of Washington, D.C., agreed that a postcard leading to an online form would be too complicated.

“Asking young people to do an extra step is always going to be harder,” she said.

Today’s millennials are more likely to rent and live in expensive urban areas than previous generations, according to an Urban Institute study in 2018.

The bureau is aware that young urban renters are less likely than they were in 2010 to communicate by mail, by phone or with strangers at the door. So it’s developing social media and other internet publicity that will allow potential respondents to log in and fill out a form next year.

“You’re able to go in and be a part of the census, without getting what we’re sending,” said Deborah Stempowski, the bureau’s chief of census management, speaking at a December meeting of the Census Scientific Advisory Committee in California. “You can do it on the phone on the Metro. It fills that gap.”

A member of the committee, 32-year-old Jessica McKellar, expressed skepticism that the bureau could find her any other way.

“I don’t check my physical mail. I just don’t. I also don’t answer my phone, and I live in an apartment complex. Nobody could get to my door if they tried to,” said McKellar, a tech startup founder in San Francisco, at the meeting.

Four out of five people ages 25-34 have no landline at home as of 2018, up from about a third in 2008, according to federal statistics. Almost 90 percent of people ages 18-29 use social media, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey (The Pew Charitable Trusts funds Stateline and the research center).

“Somebody like LeBron James could say, ‘It’s halftime! Pull out your phones, and let’s answer the census!’” said Burton Reist, communications chief for the census. “Anybody anywhere can do it right then, right there. It gives us a power we’ve never had before. It’s just huge.”

McKellar said her friends and family likely would respond to social media and celebrity endorsements. In Washington, millennials mentioned political heroes.

“If Obama was explaining it, or even Michelle [Obama], a lot of people would say, ‘OK,’” Slayton said. “They need to hear it from people they trust or like.”

Many areas deemed “hard to count” by the Census Bureau are poor or have large immigrant populations, the bureau said. But rental status and youth are bigger factors than income, so young people are the hardest to find, whether poor or relatively affluent, according to the census study.

Because they might be living with roommates, especially in high-cost areas, they may be reluctant to fill out forms asking for information about everybody in the household.

“There are six other people in my building with the same address. I know them, but I couldn’t answer the census for them,” said Emily Peeler, a 29-year-old attorney who moved from Kentucky to Washington five years ago.

In fact, many of the areas that the Census Bureau identified as the hardest to count are expensive and popular with young professionals, such as Brooklyn, D.C., Manhattan and San Francisco.

Those areas were identified as likely to be particularly hard to count in a 2017 study by a Google consultant and former census statistician, Chandra Erdman. The study won a national contest to predict low response rates in small areas so that census workers and local officials can prepare to give them extra attention.

States and cities across the country need new ways to find the surging wave of young urban renters, which has driven apartment construction to its highest levels since the 1970s.

Adil Yalcin, a 31-year-old data analyst who works from home in Alexandria, a D.C. suburb in Northern Virginia, said he appreciates the fact that the 2020 forms will be online, but he doesn’t mind watching for a postcard in the mail.

“It’s a novelty. Sometimes what’s old school is new school because it stands out,” Yalcin said. “At the same time, I appreciate that I can fill it out online. I wouldn’t want them to give me a big paper form to fill out by hand. At least they’re modern and digitally aware.”

State groups grappling with the problem include the Minnesota Census Mobilization Partnership, a private-public partnership working on encouraging census participation.

The partnership is drafting state legislation to give census takers the same right to enter controlled-access apartment buildings as police and firefighters, said Bob Tracy, the group’s public policy director.

The city of Houston, also struggling with how to reach millennial renters who have flocked to the city’s energy employment boom, also might consider asking for such a state law, said Margaret Wallace Brown, the city’s acting planning director who is directing the effort to encourage census participation.

One area in danger of being undercounted is Eldrige-West Oaks, in western Houston. Ninety-six percent of homes there are rental apartments, and typical household income is high, at $96,000 a year, according to census statistics. Loft-style housing and artist spaces built in the past decade have drawn new residents, Wallace Brown said.

chart showing cities with hard to reach millennials (Pew Stateline)

Fast-changing urban neighborhoods are particularly tough for outreach, because they may comprise lower-income residents in tightknit communities who have been there for decades, along with more affluent young professionals seeking housing at the edges of sought-after enclaves.

The two groups are both important to avoid undercounts but need different kinds of attention, said Howard Hogan, who retired this year as the bureau’s chief demographer.

“Young, educated, mobile professionals might be much easier to reach on the internet,” Hogan said. “There’s more indifference or suspicion among the less well-off, however. It will not be so easy to reach them that way, even if they carry a cellphone all day.”

Whether poor or affluent, many millennials said they want to hear more about why census participation matters.

“Celebrities won’t convince me. I don’t follow any of them,” said Tiffany Johnson, 34, who works in Washington and lives in suburban Maryland. “For me, it would have to be person to person, like a friend, telling me why I should do this. Why is it worth my time?”

The Erdman study noted that young singles are less likely to mail back paper forms, but more likely than others to fill them out on the internet, offering hope that an online campaign could be successful.

Still, some experts are concerned that internet links to census forms could open the door to widespread fraud or malicious attempts to distort data.

“How do you verify? Couldn’t some bot just fill out 900 million addresses?” asked Jay Breidt, a statistics professor at Colorado State University who serves on the advisory committee. Breidt told Stateline that the committee will continue to discuss the issue at its next meeting, in April.

To deal with possible fake or duplicate census forms, the bureau has a highly confidential computer method, or algorithm, called the Primary Selection Algorithm. It is kept secret to avoid hackers attempting to defeat it by learning its specific parts.

If someone did try to fill out millions of forms, the algorithm would detect it, because only one form will be accepted from each household.

“Of the millions you might have entered, we would pick one, based on records and what we know about that address,” said the bureau’s deputy director, Enrique Lamas.

Today’s educated millennials and Gen Z members are dedicated to civic engagement, so it’s ironic that they’re in danger of contributing to census undercounts that could undermine the political power of cities they helped shape, said Jason Dorsey, a researcher for the Center for Generational Kinetics, a consulting group.

“You have young, affluent renters who often want their voices to be heard,” Dorsey said. “Yet they might miss out on being counted in the census, which could reduce the influence their local community has.”      

Some of those in the target audience suggested the bureau might have to resort to monetary incentives to get a spot on a busy young professional’s calendar.

“I would fill out [a census form] because I know how important data collection is,” said Katie Stasa, a 25-year-old communications analyst who recently moved to Washington. “But if I’m having a really busy week, or life is out of control, absolutely not. If they’re not going to give me an Amazon gift card, why would I do it?”

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