Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts, is a team of veteran journalists who report and analyze trends in state policy with a focus on fiscal and economic issues, health care, demographics, and the business of government. More stories are available at pewtrusts.org/stateline.
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, which sap funding and political power.
“Mail? I feel like that’s a dead thing,” says Tim Slayton, 36, a Washington, DC, 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, says 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 says. “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 (see our article, "Who is Generation Z?"), 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, agrees 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 says.
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. “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.
“Somebody like LeBron James could say, ‘It’s halftime! Pull out your phones, and let’s answer the census!’” says 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.”
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, Washington, 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.
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, says 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, says Margaret Wallace Brown, the city’s acting planning director, who is leading 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 says.
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, says 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 says. “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 say they want to hear more about why census participation matters.
“Celebrities won’t convince me. I don’t follow any of them,” says 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?” asks Jay Breidt, a statistics professor at Colorado State University who serves on the scientific advisory committee.
To deal with possible fake or duplicate census forms, the bureau has a highly confidential computer method 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,” says 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, says 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 says. “Yet they might miss out on being counted in the census, which could reduce the influence their local community has.”
This article was previously published on pewtrusts.org and appears in this issue of Trust Magazine.