By now most people have gotten some outreach from the census asking if you can participate. But not a lot of people know what the census is or why it's important.
Every 10 years the federal government conducts a population count of everyone in the United States. (And yes, it's still happening this year despite the COVID-19 pandemic.) The information collected by the census is used to determine how $675 billion in federal funds are distributed annually to communities. The count also impacts how many congressional seats each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives.
So why is it important to be counted?
Aside from being mandatory, filling out the census is an effective way to get funding to your community. “A lot of our transit gets funding from the federal government like BART and AC Transit,” said Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson who represents Berkeley, Alameda and some parts of Oakland, California. “Then there's healthcare. That means that all of our federal healthcare programs and a number of our community clinics that provide healthcare services to people who can't afford healthcare,” said Carson.
The data is also used to determine funding for schools, revitalizing neighborhoods, emergency preparedness and programs for the homeless.
How is the census counting the homeless?
This group has drastically changed since the last census count in 2010. Last year, California had 151,278 homeless people and out of those, 108,432 people living unsheltered, meaning on the streets.
The census has been strategizing how to ensure this group is counted since last year. “Back in October, November, we conducted this operation with partnership specialists to help us identify community members and stakeholders who could then, with their local knowledge of their region, be able to provide for us locations of our in-house populations outdoors," said Partnership and Field Operation Specialist Kelsey Somerville.
The census will start following up with shelters and other homeless service providers to get the best counts of homeless Americans through the summer.
So why do we still hesitate to participate?
When people are asked to share personal information, it’s often met with skepticism. The 2020 census isn’t any different. (No surprise, right? Whether it’s an app like Facebook or the U.S. government, we all hear about data breaches or unethical use of personal data all the time.) For the past few months, Supervisor Carson has been actively going into the community he represents, briefing families on what the census is. But he admits it can be challenging. “There's increasing reasons why there may be suspicion about trusting the federal government these days, especially when you have Donald Trump talking about building a border wall. And unfortunately, caging young kids that have come over from Mexico or Central or Latin America,” said Carson.
President Trump’s efforts to get a citizenship question on the census survey just added to fears in immigrant communities. In the end, the Supreme Court ruled to block the question, but the damage was done. “We have to go out and dispel these rumors,” Oakland Census Office Manager Antonio Nuñez said. “It certainly has not made it easier. It is a real issue, especially here in Oakland with the Latino community. Folks ask the question and we do our best to make sure everyone's properly informed,” said Nuñez.
The census website lays out all the privacy restrictions in place. A confidentiality fact sheet says, "By law, your responses cannot be used against you by any government agency or court in any way." Furthermore, the census isn’t allowed to release any of their records for 72 years.
So what’s at stake for California if there is a low turnout?
If the census doesn’t do a good job at reaching the hard-to-count population in California, the state could lose a congressional seat. “Meaning we can lose our voice, one more voice in Washington, D.C....,” said Carson. “Fighting for us back home to make sure that we're making decisions about everyday people.”
It’s been a decade since the last census and a lot of things have changed, like technology. Now, there are multiple ways that people can participate. For the first time, the census is offering the option to complete the form online. You will need the numerical ID information that was sent to your home in March. If you misplaced or didn’t get an ID number, there is an option on the site that can help you look it up. There isn’t an app, in case you are already searching the App Store or Google Play, but the website is mobile-friendly.
If you prefer doing things the old-school way, there is the paper form. You simply complete the form and send it off. But if writing or going online just isn’t your thing, then you can also complete the form by phone. There will also be census staff knocking on doors if you prefer completing the survey that way.
Here's the census timeline over next few months:
- April 1st: Census starts!
- Starting April: Census takers will target places where multiple people live together like college campuses (with some adjustments based on coronavirus restrictions).
- May-July: Census takers will start visiting the homes of those who haven’t responded, in their effort to make sure that everyone gets counted.