A galvanizing moment: Census 2020 provides new opportunity to invest in skills

By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, December 04, 2016

A galvanizing moment: Census 2020 provides new opportunity to invest in skills

The 2020 Census is around the corner. The first census enumerators will begin gathering data in rural Alaska just four weeks from now in January 2020, while Americans nationwide will receive Census mailings beginning in March. The stakes are high: In FY 2017, the US government relied on Census-derived data to distribute more than $1.5 trillion in funding to states, localities, organizations, and individuals.

One area isn’t getting as much press, but is equally important: The role of the Census in prodding policymakers to take action on skills issues.

In particular, the upcoming Census provides skills advocates with a galvanizing moment to help policymakers grasp the importance of investing in digital literacy and other foundational skills. In the near term, policymakers can take action on skills as part of broader Census engagement efforts; in the longer term, investments in skills should be a key part of any Future of Work policy agenda.

The Census and skills: Connecting the dots for state and local policymakers

While many states and localities are busy setting up Complete Count Committees and otherwise hustling to fund outreach and ensure that hard-to-count communities are included in the Census, relatively less attention has been paid to the skills needed for the Census. These fall into two categories:

  • Skills needed by individuals who are responding to the Census
  • Skills needed by individuals who are seeking jobs with the Census Bureau as enumerators or other frontline positions

Skills advocates can educate local and state policymakers about both kinds of upskilling needs among their constituents. For the general public, traditional literacy and digital literacy skills are important to ensure that families can complete Census forms accurately and be included in the count. For jobseekers, traditional literacy and digital literacy skills are necessary to be eligible for the hundreds of thousands of enumerator and other Census jobs available through the spring and summer of 2020.

Why does the Census require digital literacy skills?

For the first time, the US is pursuing an internet-first Census. That means that typical households will receive three mailings – an invitation to respond, a reminder letter, and a postcard reminder — inviting them to self-respond via the official Census website. Only if households fail to respond to the first three mailings will they receive a paper form in the fourth mailing from the Census Bureau.

(While online responses were an option back in the 2010 Census, they were not the default. This time around, online response is framed as a default for almost all households. Individuals can also call in by phone to respond, though this option is often avoided by respondents because it can be time-consuming.)

Online responses can be submitted via laptop or desktop computer, tablet, or smart phone. 

What can skills advocates ask policymakers to do?

There are some steps that advocates can take immediately. These are outlined below. In 2020, National Skills Coalition will be releasing a new data analysis of digital literacy skill gaps and an expanded set of policy recommendations as part of our overall Future of Work agenda.

At the state and local level:

  • Introduce state-level legislation or an administrative policy mirroring the federal Digital Equity Act (see below). Investing in digital skill-building helps ensure that all adults have the ability to participate in important civic requirements such as the Census, while also equipping them for a labor market that increasingly demands digital skills even for entry-level positions – such as Census enumerator jobs.
  • Provide resources and technical assistance for adult education programs that serve Census respondents and jobseekers. Existing state investments in adult education vary widely. All states should consider increasing investments in programs serving adult learners, including professional development to help adult educators themselves build the digital fluency needed to equip learners with necessary skills. In terms of technical assistance, California has led the way in issuing an array of programmatic materials including curricula and other Census materials for adult education programs. Advocates can also take advantage of Census resources from the National Coalition for Literacy and the American Library Association to educate policymakers and service providers alike.

At the federal level:

  • Co-sponsor and support the Digital Equity Act, recently introduced by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and colleagues. This legislation, now under consideration in Congress, would create two new federal grant programs to support digital literacy. States would be required to develop digital inclusion plans that outline how partners such as nonprofit organizations, workforce and adult education providers, and libraries would help to ensure that all state residents have equitable access to digital skill-building opportunities. 
    • The legislation would include:
      • A $125 million formula grant program, distributed to all states
      • A $125 million discretionary grant program, distributed only to states that win a competitive proposal process
  • Increase investment in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). Currently, Title II funds programs serving approximately 1.5 million adult learners each year — including classes in adult basic education, adult secondary education (also known as high school equivalency), and English language acquisition. Digital literacy is mentioned as an authorized activity under WIOA, although there is no dedicated funding for such classes. Funding WIOA at its full authorized level is a vital component of helping individuals build digital literacy skills.