Digital Literacy to prepare adult learners for the 2020 U.S. Census

Hello Colleagues,

As you may know, the 2020 Census will be online. This provides another reason, and perhaps opportunity, to offer digital literacy to your adult basic skills (including ESL/ESOL) students.

Has your program, state, county, city or town been planning how to prepare those who lack digital literacy skills* for the 2020 Census? If so, tell us about those plans.

For example, Philadelphia has been working on this, as you can read about in this article, Philadelphia Funds Digital Literacy to Prep for the Census." Below are selections from the article:

  • Philadelphia’s Digital Literacy Alliance — a coalition that works to ensure city residents have access to technology and the skills to use it — will focus its annual grant-making on the upcoming 2020 U.S. Census.
  • This mark’s the Alliance’s third round of grant making, having previously given out a total of $350,000 — generally between $10,000 and $25,000 — to community groups, schools and others who work toward digital equity. According to Andrew Buss, Philadelphia’s deputy CIO for innovation management, a change made this year will concentrate efforts on the forthcoming census.
  • Organizers aren’t entirely sure which projects — and their organizations — to back with the grants. Both Reid and Buss said that receiving creative ideas that hadn’t yet occurred to the city would be an ideal scenario. One thing Philadephia will be looking for is census-related digital literacy projects that have the potential to continue developing the city’s digital inclusion infrastructure — now roughly eight years in the making — after the census has ended.

* In another discussion, in the Integrating Technology group, we have an evolving definition of digital literacy/fluency, that expands the American Library Association definition that has served us well for many years but some believe needs updating. Here's what we've come up with:  "Ability to successfully and ethically use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create and communicate information, and solve relevant problems, in a person's daily living, education and work."

David J. Rosen, Moderator

LINCS CoP Integrating Technology and Program Management groups


For a very different approach to the 2020 Census' new online option, Knoxville, TN, just held the newly formed Joint Count Committee's initial planning meeting for the 2020 Census on May 8th, 2019. The Knoxville 2020 Census FAQ document states:

"HOW CAN I RESPOND?  In 2020, for the first time ever, the U.S. Census Bureau will accept responses online, but you can still respond by phone or mail if you prefer. Responding should take less time than it takes to finish your morning coffee."  [Emphasis added.] 

and also

"WHEN WILL I COMPLETE THE CENSUS?...Beginning in mid-March, people will receive a notice in the mail to complete the 2020 Census. Once you receive it, you can respond online. In May, the U.S. Census Bureau will begin following up in person with households that haven’t responded to the census.   [Emphasis added.] 

The implication being that nothing has to change, phone or paper is fine - and if you don't bother to fill it out, someone will show up and help you do so.

Knoxville's current main focus is on getting more folks to complete it - in any way they want. Digital literacy skills are not even mentioned. Instead, Knoxville is focusing on how to reach and support the 3 populations most likely NOT to complete the census to do so:

  • Renters
  • Those aged 18-24
  • Female unmarried heads of household

Thinking about our adult education population, how many of our students fall into ALL THREE of these categories?  How can adult ed programs help reach not only our students, but also those our STUDENTS KNOW to complete these forms?  Including non-native speakers (who are PARTICULARLY nervous about 'giving information to the government')!

Another thought: In 1990 I lead a Census crew for the University of Tennessee Campus area (all the "unofficial" student housing surrounding the campus). In general, campus students were SUPPOSED to fill out the census form for where they were living on Census day. MANY did not fill it out - assuming their parents would - and then were gone in May due to semester end. How many drop outs or new high school graduates - or other new post-secondary and training students will fail to fill out the census (or be found by census workers)?  How can adult education work with our post-secondary partners and HIGH SCHOOLS to educate these young people about the importance of filling out these forms?

None of this, unfortunately, well addresses David's question about *digital literacy* initiatives relating to the US Census, but as a former Census worker AND a former Adult education teacher, AND a current systems change advocate for adult education, I feel that the Census needs to be a HUGE focus for our field - from ANY direction!

Hi Duren,

Thanks for putting my question in perspective. I certainly agree that Knoxville, Tennessee's approach has a lot of merit. I suspect -- but don't know -- that Philadelphia has also been concerned about addressing other ways of completing the Census. Anyone from PA know what Philadephia's comprehensive approach might be?

What are other cities, towns, states -- and adult basic skills programs planning to do so that adult education students and their families understand the importance, but for some also the risks, of completing the 2020 Census? And, in particular, what strategies are planned or being discussed to help those who wish to -- or who can only -- complete the Census online.

David J. Rosen


The New England Literacy Resource Center at World Education and the National Coalition for Literacy invite you to a webinar on

Preparing Adult Education Programs for the 2020 Census

June 4, 2:00-3:15 (EDT)

registration link

The Constitution requires that a census of all US residents be taken every ten years in order to determine each state’s number of Congressional representatives and the apportionment of billions of federal dollars (including adult education funding). This webinar will review how the 2020 Census works, why it matters, challenges that threaten a full population count, and how adult education programs and libraries can help adults understand and participate in the 2020 Census.

There is high risk of a serious undercount of immigrant residents. Please join us to find out what we can to do combat that risk. 


Judy Mortrude, Center for Law and Social Policy

Deborah Kennedy, National Coalition for Literacy

Kristin Lahurd, American Library Association

Heather Ritchie, Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School

Andy Nash, New England Literacy Resource Center at World Education

Thanks for sharing these ideas, Duren. Some thoughts I had as I read your message:

1. Add libraries to the list of potential partners because they are paying a lot of attention to the census and are another "safe space" to get all kinds of support in many communities.

2. Let's keep sharing these outreach strategies as the census organizing ramps up. NELRC is going to create a web page where we'll be compiling (or adapting as teaching materials) informational resources, and also strategies for programs that want to address the census as a program-wide priority. 

3. Since having someone official knocking at your door is the most intimidating option for many people, we really want to help students figure out how they want to participate in the census before that stage. And on our webinar next week, Heather Ritchie will be talking about some things that educators should be aware that we cannot say legally. If you can't attend, please check out the archived recording that will be available at 

Many thanks!