The Census Isn’t Releasing Local Poverty Data Today. Here’s Why That Matters.

Our social safety net relies heavily on statistics.

Number of kids returning to school this year: 48.1 million, all receiving free meals.

Number of people housed with the help of federal rental assistance: 10.4 million, 23 percent of whom are disabled.

Number of workers who lost their unemployment benefits on Labor Day: more than 8 million.

To help people, we have to know how many people are in need, how many people receive benefits, and what the gap is between those two numbers. For the past 15 years, the American Community Survey (ACS), conducted annually by the Census Bureau, has been one source of such data. But the pandemic made that data collection impossible.

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The American Community Survey tracks how Americans are doing on a granular level annually, not just once a decade: It measures the highest level of education people have completed, how many people experience poverty each year, and how people commute to work. Any community with at least 65,000 people has ACS data that anyone can view. That data is used to allocate resources for more than 130 programs, many of which fight poverty, including SNAP, Head Start, Section 8 vouchers, Unemployment Insurance, and the Census itself.

The Census Bureau collects the majority of its information through Internet, telephone, and mail-in surveys, then follows up with some of the people who do not respond with phone calls and in-person visits. But in 2020, the stay at home orders at the beginning of the pandemic interrupted the data collection process. Mail operations were canceled for April, May, and June of 2020, as were in-person interviews. So, while the Census did still get some respondents, it was not able to collect sufficient data among key groups who tend to be less responsive: People with lower incomes, lower educational attainment, and those who do not own their own homes. As a result, they decided they couldn’t offer their usual ACS data release.

The people we are missing data on are the exact group of people TalkPoverty focuses on: The same people who were hit hardest by the pandemic, and for whom accurate data is most important in developing a response.  The American Community Survey is how we know, for example, the number of people who have health insurance, what their household income is (and how much of it depends on public benefits), and how many people have dipped below the poverty line by state and congressional district. That’s especially important because it lets us track geographic inequities over time.

The Census will still be able to provide useful data from a related Census product, the Current Population Survey. That data, released September 14th, will include national poverty rates, health insurance coverage data, and income data that lets us calculate the gender wage gap. We’ll have a broad sense of how Americans were faring overall in 2020, and how effective federal aid programs such as expanded Unemployment Insurance and SNAP were over the year. However, there will not be any state or local breakdowns of that data. So, while we will have the official annual poverty estimates, we will not have detailed data that would show if certain groups of people, such as Black women in Michigan or Latinas in Texas, were more likely to experience poverty in 2020.

Later this fall, the Census is releasing what it’s calling “experimental” ACS data on “a limited number of data tables for limited geographies.” It’s unclear right now what exactly that means – we do not know which data points or locations it will cover. It is unclear how the many agencies that rely on this data to calculate necessary funding for benefits will be doing their math, even as we need data more than ever to reflect changed economic circumstances for millions of Americans. What data there is will provide us with important information about a year when so many communities that rely on the safety net were in turmoil — from grocery store clerks to elementary school kids.

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