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The 2020 Census will be Available to Complete Online - How Many Texans will Have Access?

By Tim Brown, County Information Senior Analyst

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In 2020, for the first time, you will be able to complete the census online. Of course, that assumes you have a computer and access to the internet. Therefore, the U.S. Census Bureau will also use paper versions of the 2020 Census form.

Given the online plans for the 2020 census, the question naturally arises, “Who has a computer and who does not?”

Whether between the rich and the poor or between urban and rural, the digital divide has been a concern ever since the last century’s dot-com boom. In May, the Pew Research Center released two posts1 on this topic: “Digital divide persists even as lower-income Americans make gains in tech adoption,” and “Digital gap between rural and nonrural America persists.” These reports covered the digital divide at the national level. 
Thanks to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013-2017 American Community Survey (ACS) 5-Year Estimates, we can see at the county level who has access to the internet in Texas. Although the data is not reported by each individual, it is available by household. A household includes all the people who occupy the same housing unit (e.g., a house or an apartment) as their usual place of residence. They do not have to be related.

Map 1 shows the number of households with at least one computer. The computer could be a desktop, a laptop, tablet or some other type of computer — it might even be a smartphone as long — as they have at least one computer of some type.

No more than 75% of the households in the counties shown in yellow have a computer. In other words, at least 25% of the households in those counties do not have a computer of any type (e.g., desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone). 

But not all types of computers are equal. For example, the households with computers shown in Map 1 include those that only have a smartphone and no other type of computer. Because the ACS also asked about the type of computers in each household, we can see in Map 2 that a significant percentage of the households in some counties have a smartphone as their only computer. A large number of these counties are found in the rural areas of the western half of the state. Another significant group runs from the Valley north to Atascosa County and then west to Zavala County. Since there will be a mobile version of the form, even those households that only have a smartphone for their computer will be able to complete the 2020 Census online.

Of course, any computer needs access to the internet — the Census Bureau estimates that 76.8% of households statewide have a broadband connection.

Yet, Map 3 shows that in most counties the percentage of households that have broadband access to the internet (cellular data, cable, DSL, satellite, etc.) is significantly lower than the statewide percentage. A separate report by the Pew Research Center, based on a survey conducted in 2018, stated that 24% of rural adults said access to high-speed internet is a major problem in their local communities, compared to only 9 % in suburban residents and 13% of urban residents.

Note how similar Map 3 is to Map 1, although there are some differences. One of the main differences is how many more people seem to have computers than broadband. Map 1 reveals that at least 75.1% of households in most counties have a computer, while Map 2 shows that less than 75.1% of the households in most counties have broadband access. 

However, both maps tend to agree that households with computers, as well as those with broadband, tend to be clustered in the larger urban areas centered around Houston, the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex and the San Antonio-Austin corridor. 

From the three maps, it would seem that most of the households in the urban counties will have the option of completing the 2020 Census online. However, fewer rural and border county households will be able to take advantage of that opportunity. This distinction will be most apparent along the international border, but it will impact counties statewide. Since this will be the first time that people can complete the form online, it is too soon to tell how this digital divide will impact the census. Hopefully, it will encourage more people to participate and result in a more accurate count. For more information about how you can help ensure an accurate census, see the side note. 

Side note:

If your goal is to maximize the amount of federal funding the state and your county receives, it is important to count everyone who resides in your county – a 1% undercount would cost the state about $300 million a year in federal funds, according to a study from George Washington University2. For more information about what you can do to make sure everyone in your county is counted, go to https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/newsroom/press-kits/2018/ccc-guide-d-1280.pdf.


1 https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/05/07/digital-divide-persists-even-as-lower-income-americans-make-gains-in-tech-adoption/

2 Article: https://www.sanantonio.gov/Census2020
Study: George Washington Institute of Public Policy, George Washington University. https://gwipp.gwu.edu/sites/g/files/zaxdzs2181/f/downloads/GWIPP%20Reamer%20Fiscal%20Impacts%20of%20Census%20Undercount%20on%20FMAP-based%20Programs%2003-19-18.pdf