It’s Census time! I am a community data nerd and use Census data every day for my work. But if you’re not a nerd, and don’t work with data, why should you care? Here’s a basic primer on the Census.
A Census is a count of EVERYONE! Everybody counts: Old, young, native born or foreign born, citizen or not, incarcerated or not. It is important that we get an accurate count of everyone in the place where they live. Why? Two reasons: first, the Census is how Congressional apportionment is determined. I’ll break that down. While each state gets two Senators, the number of Representatives in the House of Representatives is based on population. If you’re in a growing state you want to make sure your state gets a fair share of Representatives in the House. Also, several states use the Census population breakdowns to determine the size of legislative districts and how many there are. Second, federal government entitlement programs are determined based on population. Money for roads, water and wastewater treatment facilities, schools, parks, transit, trails, housing, and other critical infrastructure are determined based on formulas that use population. Your community is literally counting on you for funding.
Make sure you count everyone in your household!
Did you know that persons of color are the most likely to be undercounted? Especially children? The history of counting non-white person in the United States has a deeply problematic history beginning with the 3/5th compromise where black people were only counted as 3/5th of a person. However, being counted now is particularly important because it is how representation is calculated. While it isn’t as easy as adding a representative that will then work to advocate for the needs of those they represent (politics being what it is), having representation is how we begin to hold organizations and elected leadership accountable in ensuring diversity in decision making. If you are not a citizen, despite a certain administration’s attempts to have it be, citizenship is NOT a question on the 2020 Census. The Census Bureau (part of the Department of Commerce) can’t share your individual data with Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS).
Everyone who has done ancestry research knows they can see Census forms, but they aren’t released in their dis-aggregated (individual record) form for 72 years after the Census? The forms (and digital archives) are literally stored in vaults around the country with highly limited access. It is the aggregated, non-identifiable data that we use for research and analysis.
How do you get counted?
So how to they try to count EVERYONE? Well, it starts with YOU! Beginning this week you should get a Census form in the mail. It is an invitation to participate in the Census online and has a unique access code (so that you can’t be over counted). This is the first time that the Census response forms have been available online. Fill it out. PLEASE. If you don’t then Census enumerators (counters) need to come to your house until they get a hold of an adult in the household who can answer the questions. They will keep coming until they get a response, because it is that important. Inevitably there are some hard to count populations like the homeless, but people work really hard to make sure we count everyone. Because the Constitution says we have to.
It is very unfortunate that the COVID-19 pandemic hit at exactly Census time. That means it is more important than ever to respond when you get your invitation. Enumerators are being delayed in being sent out. But they will come. It really helps if they have fewer households to visit.
Short form? Long form?
In the past you may have heard of people talking about the short form and long form Census or may hear a data dork pining for the old days of the long form. While the Constitution only requires a basic count, which used to be the short form…there’s a wealth of other data we need to know about our communities. This used to be collected every 10 years during the Census by long form for a scientific sample of households. Well, that isn’t done anymore. Which makes some of us sad (me, I never got to fill out long form and I miss some of the data). But we still get (most) of that data through what is called the American Communities Survey (ACS) and it is collected every 1, 3, or 5 years depending on community size. So more often, but less detailed. It’s a trade off.
And the least exciting reason to complete the Census…it is required by federal law. But do it because it is helpful and important.
There are plenty of resources out there to explain more about the Census. Consider this post as your primer, and explore the following links for more.