As voting rights advocate Sue Dean-Dyke of Cleveland’s Mobilize the Vote explains, “an election is for four years. A census is for a decade — and it can impact generations.”
Census participation is as important as voting.
Are you an advocate of public education? Disability rights? Against gerrymandering? Concerned about social justice and representation for marginalized communities?
Beyond our ballots, participation in the United States census is one of the most important ways we can affect the change we want to see in our communities. Among other things, census results provide the data that informs congressional representation and district mapping, as well as the distribution of billions of dollars of federal funding.
Most US households can expect to be part of the mid-March rollout of the census (although participation has been underway since January in remote Alaska). From March 12 to March 20, households across the country will begin receiving official Census Bureau mail with detailed information on how to respond to the 2020 census online, by phone, or by mail.
While 80% of recipients will be invited to participate online, the remaining 20% will be invited to participate by mail. This latter cohort usually includes communities with low self-response rates, those with higher populations of people aged 65+, and those with low internet subscriptions.
Special populations are counted strategically. For example, from March 30 to April 1, the Census Bureau counts people who are experiencing homelessness via counts at shelters, soup kitchens, and mobile food vans, as well as counts on the streets. During the month of April, census staff visit those who live among large groups of people — college students who live on campus, people living in senior centers — as a way to ensure an accurate count.
How does the census actually work?
The census counts every person living in the U.S. To ensure that no one is counted twice, the Census Bureau asks respondents to report on the number of people in their home on April 1, 2020, Census Day (regardless of what day the questions are answered, they need to be answered in reference to April 1).
By focusing on peoples’ locations on a single date, the Census Bureau is better able to measure the volume of people who would need government-funded services in a given geographic region. Thus, by grabbing this point-in-time data, federal agencies can then run numbers to proportionally distribute funds for things like emergency services, road maintenance, and community grants.
What is the purpose of the census?
According to the Census Bureau, “The primary goal of the 2020 Census is to count everyone once, only once, and in the right place.” The census determines congressional representation, informs hundreds of billions in funding for federal programs, and provides data that impacts communities for the next decade.
Based on data derived from the 2010 Census, in fiscal year 2015, Ohio received over $21 billion (roughly $1,814 per person). The largest federally funded programs informed by the census include: Section 8 Housing Assistance Payments; Special Education IDEA grants; the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP): Head Start and Early Head Start; Medicaid; SNAP (food stamps); Medicare Part B; Highway Planning & Construction; Title I Grants; Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers; Foster Care; WIC; LIHEAP; the Child Care and Development Fund; and Health Center Programs.
Under-counting results in under-funding of these community resources.
Why do some people avoid the census?
For many reasons, some people don’t see the direct benefit to themselves. Perhaps they don’t understand how the census relates to federal funding of programs that ultimately impact communities small and large. Perhaps they don’t realize that the census counts EVERYONE — citizens and non-citizens, housed and homeless, adults and children. They might distrust the government, or they might simply be socially isolated.
One major concern for many people is confidentiality. It may help to know that census documents are sealed for 72 years.* No one but you can retrieve your personal data. Law enforcement — police, the FBI, ICE — cannot access census data; neither can credit agencies. Your responses are confidential. For data analysis and related decisions, the numerical count of household members is separated from identifying information.
*After 72 years census records are moved to the National Archives and Records Administration, where curious individuals can do searches of their ancestors and community members. Note that the digitization of older census records is an elaborate process, so searches take patience.
What happens if people don’t respond to the census?
When there is low response, the Census Bureau hires census takers — or “enumerators” — to knock on doors from May to July with the hope of engaging more households. Completing the form online or by mail is the most efficient use of community resources, a way to ensure that door knocking is reserved for communities that have had low response rates.
Dubbed “hard to count areas,” communities with low response rates exceed the normal 1.5% rate of not-responding to the census. In Cuyahoga County, indicators associated with low response rates include renter-occupied households; individuals aged 18 to 24; children age 5 and under; female-headed households; African American racial identity; people with housing changes since last year; and homes with a primary language other than English.
If households do not participate, the people in that community are under-counted, which ultimately means that the community will receive less funding for community services from federal programs.
In short, if people are not counted, that community will receive fewer dollars.
Who is most impacted by under-counting and under-funding?
Obviously, the disenfranchised and under-served — children, elders, individuals with special medical needs, and those who are poor — are hurt when we get an inaccurate count. Their communities lose access to dollars and congressional representation.
Communities are further economically impacted by inaccurate counts because new businesses look at census data when projecting whether their businesses would thrive in a given community. Communities that want to draw new businesses should encourage participation in the census.
Under-represented citizens are also impacted by under-counts because these citizens essentially lose their voice in the United States Congress via the lines drawn to define congressional districts and the number of seats received in the House of Representatives.
Locally, advocates tell us that the cities of Cleveland, Euclid, Lakewood, and Cleveland Heights were all under-counted in 2010. For 2020, Cuyahoga County and the City of Cleveland have formed Complete Count Committees with goals to get every citizen counted. These action groups work closely with community partners to amplify the importance of census participation. According to the Census Bureau, “Community influencers create localized messaging that resonates with the population in their area. They are trusted voices and are best suited to mobilize community resources in an efficient manner.”
What’s the deal about census scams?
Unfortunately, there are those who exploit the census as an opportunity to commit fraud. Fake census ploys — phone calls, door knocking, social media posts, and mailings that resemble census materials — are sometimes used to collect personal information (phishing) that can be used for later identity fraud. You might even be asked for a “donation” — which is NEVER part of a genuine census. In addition, some entities create forms that resemble the census, tricking people into believing that they’ve “already participated” — resulting in an inaccurate count.
The best way to side-step fraud is to respond directly to the Census Bureau’s mailer that will be arriving soon. Citizens can also verify sources via the Census Bureau website.
Ok, I get it. What do I do now?
Participate early, and encourage others to do the same.
- Watch for your official 2020 Census invitation by mail, and complete the form online, by phone, or by mail.
- Talk with colleagues and community members about the census. Ask how they are filling theirs out. The more of us who complete the census early, the better we help ensure that resources will be strategically dedicated to improve historically low-count response rates.
- Talk about census fraud. Make sure other adults know that the census will NEVER ask for credit card numbers, social security numbers, cell phone numbers, or donations.
If you have questions about the Census, visit www.2020census.gov, or stop in at your local library to ask a librarian.
If you would like to apply for a temporary job with the Cuyahoga County Census, visit: http://executive.cuyahogacounty.us/en-us/2020-Census-Jobs.aspx.