Fernando Armstrong embraces the opportunities of the 2020 Census
The regional director of the 2020 census reflects on his journey - and how the census has evolved since his first days as a census leader in Puerto Rico.
They were burdened with bags full of papers and documents, toting maps outlining routes and strategies for reaching even the most remote homes. The intrepid explorers gathered in fast food restaurants, or hunched over materials strewn across their living room floors, as they plotted out their journeys and reviewed the progress they had made on their quest: to count every single individual person living in the United States, and its territories.
The year was 1980, and the census, then, was an undertaking that required willpower, strategy, finesse - and tireless dedication. It was a project that Fernando Armstrong devoted himself to as soon as he began working for the 1980 census in his native Puerto Rico in 1978, and it is a mission that he still serves with a passion in his current role as regional director for the 2020 census for the Philadelphia region.
The differences in the process from when he first began his career to the 2020 Census, said Armstrong, is that now, all you need is a phone. The power of the internet and technology have transformed the entire process for the better.
In a visit to the AL DÍA newsroom on Aug. 7, Armstrong reflected on what has been his life’s work - and the ways in which technology has transformed the 10-year count that now makes it “easier, faster, and safer” to participate in the census than ever before.
Armstrong, who speaks softly, but with precision and conviction, said that the tools and methodology of the census in this day and age are a world away from those paper-laden meetings in homes and restaurants.
“It helps in the way that I have been through the census as it has evolved through being a paper census to now that [it] is going to take advantage and leverage a lot of technology that was not available before,” Armstrong told AL DÍA CEO Hernán Guaracao.
Those advances include being able to respond online, as well as by phone, by sending in a survey, or, finally, by completing the survey in the presence of a census worker who comes to your home to help you fill it out.
These advancements are key, said Armstrong, in having a “good census” - one that provides the most accurate count possible.
“I feel excited precisely because I have seen the census progress through the years and through the decades. And I see, I can see firsthand how important it is for a community, for a state, for the country to have a good census,” Armstrong said.
These advancements will also be particularly effective, said Armstrong, in combating one of the biggest challenges that the 2020 census faces.
Since March 2018, President Donald Trump and the Commerce Department have pushed for the inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 census.
Even when the Supreme Court blocked the inclusion of the question on the basis that the reasoning for it as a way to enforce the Voting Rights Act was “contrived,” President Trump at first insisted that it would be included, then backed down. The decision was final: There would be no citizenship question on the census.
Though Armstrong and others have reassured the public of this fact, he said it is also important to note that the census operates separately from all other facets of government and does not share participants’ information with any other government agency. But many fear that the specter of the citizenship question will discourage many immigrant families, including some Latinos, from responding to the census.
Armstrong said that his message to families who might be wary of responding due to privacy concerns is: “Give us an opportunity.”
“I would say give us an opportunity to prove to you that it’s safe, nothing is going to happen to you, to your family. Many good things will happen to you and to your neighborhood, and to your community if you participate,” Armstrong said.
“There are times when you have to acknowledge your responsibility to the community. It’s a civic duty, just like voting is a civic duty. You have to cherish and take advantage of those opportunities. And this opportunity only comes once every ten years. If they are going to remain here, if their children are going to continue going to school, if they are going to continue to use medical facilities and hospitals, it’s in their best interest to be on the census,” he said.
Apart from the benefits inherent to participating in the census, in the form of more accurate allocation of funding and better representation in government, Armstrong said that the technological advancements that allow for people to respond via their smartphones have made the process much easier - and also serve as important safety barriers that protect people’s privacy.
Now that people can respond to the census online or by mail, it is easy to ensure that no one from the census has to come to your home address and knock on your door. The first of five mailings, sent out in March 2020, invites people to participate in the census and gives them the instructions for how to do so. There are, in total, five mailings that the Census Bureau sends to households reminding people to complete the census before they send out an enumerator to visit someone’s home so that they can help that person complete the questionnaire.
“There’s no way that anyone could be identified, there’s no way that an address can be identified, there’s no way that a particular individual or a particular neighborhood or a particular family could be penalized based on their participation on the census,” Armstrong affirmed.
Ultimately, Armstrong said that to ensure everyone is counted, citywide and regional efforts are what will make the difference - and an attitude that the census is “a unique opportunity to tell the world who we are.”
“I think that once we are able to convey that message to the public and to the Latino community, the Asian community and to the immigrant community, once we can communicate that it’s safe, that it’s confidential, that it’s important, I think that you’re going to see a lot of groups that are Latino community included that will see it as a moment of pride,” Armstrong said.
“This is my opportunity to be proud of who I am, of where I came from. Of what my family brings to the city, of what my family brings to the country,” he added.
The census process has an important societal role, apart from its mission, in that it provides hundreds of thousands of temporary jobs throughout the country throughout its mobilization year.
In Philadelphia, there will be two offices with 600 people each working full or part-time, participating in canvassing and other processes to ensure that each person in the city is counted.
Throughout the region, Armstrong will oversee, in total, approximately 57,000 census employees, across nine states.
Armstrong said that in spite of the many honors, awards, and achievements he has earned in his decades-long career, the legacy he would want to leave behind consists primarily of the ways in which he has helped support the professionals he has worked with on census efforts throughout the years.
“I think the only thing that I would like to have in terms of legacy is knowing that I have been able to provide opportunities to a lot of people, and that they have been able to take advantage of those opportunities and that they have become better professionals and better community members - and that they are capable, able, and willing to replace me,” Armstrong said.
“I work hard every day to find people that can replace me. That’s my job,” he added.
Though it might be his job, it looks as though that is one step that Armstrong has yet to achieve. And in 2020, the impassioned census director will continue to lead the way.