Written by Susan Davis, Library Assistant
As with so many aspects of daily life right now, the 2020 Census has been dramatically impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, which is affecting the methods and timeline to complete the Census. However, an even bigger concern than logistics is the possibility that the accuracy and effectiveness of the Census may be affected, too.
What, Exactly, Is the Census?
The Census is a count of the population in the United States and five U.S. territories (Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands). It is conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, a nonpartisan government agency, and mandated by the Constitution to be conducted every 10 years. The 2020 Census will be the 24th time our country has counted its population since 1790.
Why Is It Important to Know This Count?
Most people understand that the Census determines how many seats each state gets in the House of Representatives and how the boundaries of legislative and congressional districts are drawn, but they may not know that Census numbers also determine how billions of dollars in federal funding are distributed—dollars for hospitals, fire departments, school lunches, roads, and more, including more than $1 billion to libraries. It is critical to each community that everyone is counted so we can all get our fair share of these important dollars for health care, safety, services, and more.
So, What Is the Problem This Year?
In years past, the Census has been counted on a strict schedule with a two-phase approach:
- First, the Census Bureau mails out forms to all addresses in its files, asking that residents complete the form for everyone living at that address and respond by phone or by mail. (For the 2020 Census, an online response option was added.) During this first phase, the Bureau also physically verifies all addresses, seeing if any are no longer in existence or if new ones need to be added.
- In the second phase, the bureau sends out specially trained employees to interview in person all residents who have not responded by phone, mail, or online. So far, the 2020 response rate is only about 60 percent.
This year two major problems have slowed down the process, causing the original schedule and methods to need modification. Fear of contracting the SARS–CoV–2 virus that leads to COVID-19 by Census workers and citizens has made in-person contact problematic. Also, the recent news and confusion over whether to include a citizenship question (it is not included) has caused some people to fear participation because of their own immigration status or that of family or others at the address.
If not all citizens are counted, the undercount would reduce federal and local funding to those localities. The impact would be greatest in underserved areas, where the need is especially great.
What Is the Census Bureau Doing about It?
The Census Bureau has recognized that more time is needed for this year’s count. Congress has approved an extension to complete the Census and report the numbers to Congress. This extra time will allow meeting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines through acquisition of personal protective equipment (PPE) and for special training for in-person interviews.
In addition, an information campaign is under way to reassure the public that the process will be safe. It includes:
- encouraging a contactless response online, by phone, or by mail, where possible,
- communicating that interviewers will be following CDC guidelines for COVID-19, and
- reassuring that all personal information gathered, including citizenship status, is safe and will not be shared with other agencies.
Through September 30, Census takers will interview people in homes that have not yet responded to the 2020 Census. Special teams will visit group locations such as residential schools, shelters, nursing homes, and prisons and will search out and count the homeless.
How Can I Help?
People can help in the following ways:
- If you have not done so, respond to the Census now by mail, phone, or online or to the Census interviewer if one calls on you. There is still time. Responses can be received through September 30, 2020. Do not forget to count the children. Visit https://my2020census.gov/ for more information and to respond.
- Encourage everyone you know to respond to the Census—friends, family, coworkers, neighbors. Encourage stores, businesses, libraries, churches, and other facilities to display Census 2020 reminders and posters with accurate information. For resources visit https://countallkids.org/posters-and-graphics/ or https://2020census.gov/en/partners/outreach-materials.html
- Inform yourself so that you can be an advocate for the 2020 Census and help assure an accurate count. For more information, contact the Census Bureau at https://my2020census.gov/ or https://2020census.gov/en/how-to-help.html. You can call customer service at the bureau at (844) 330-2020 (English) or (844) 468-2020 (Spanish). There are special lines for non-English languages and for the hard of hearing. Numbers are located on the bureau Contact Us page (https://2020census.gov/en/contact-us.html) and are open from 5 am to 7 pm Pacific time.
Is My Information Safe?
The answers you provide to the Census Bureau are used only to produce statistics. The bureau is bound by Title 13 of the U.S. Code to keep your information confidential. It cannot release any identifiable information about you, your home, or your business, even to law enforcement agencies, government agencies, or courts. If you respond to the Census online (https://2020census.gov/en.html), know that the bureau’s information technology (IT) infrastructure is designed to defend against and contain cyberthreats.
How Can I Avoid Fraud and Scams?
As with any public campaign, always use caution to avoid being fooled or taken advantage of. The safest way to respond to the Census is for you to phone the bureau, mail in your application, or go online. If you wait to be contacted, ask for identification from someone claiming to be a Census worker. All Census Bureau employees will carry official identification with their photograph, a U.S. Department of Commerce watermark, and an expiration date. Remember, the Census Bureau will never ask for your Social Security number, banking information, or money or donations. If you receive a phone call from someone asking for such information, hang up and call the bureau. All official online sites will have a “.gov” extension.
For complete information visit Avoiding fraud and scams. If you have questions or would like to fill out your application by phone, call the Census Bureau at (844) 330-2020. Representatives are available any day, 4 am to 11 pm Pacific time.
For More Information:
- 2020 Census
- 2020 Census mailings
- 2020 Census operational timeline
- 2020 Census jobs application site
- Avoiding fraud and scams
- “Federal Laws That Protect Census Confidentiality” (Brennan Center for Justice, February 2019)
- “Study: More than $1 billion in library funding to be allocated based on Census results”(November 19, 2019)
- Video: “Meet Cecilia, Shaping the Future of Libraries”
- Seussville: Everyone counts in the 2020 Census!– downloadable activities
- The Internet Self-Response Portal: What to Expect(Census Counts)
- The Census and Health Care
- The Scoop: “Completing the Count” (January 26, 2020)