Chance for Accurate Census Data Is Running Out

by Shane Baker, on September 8, 2020 at 10:50 AM

As summer winds down, so too do the 2020 U.S. Census operations. The deadline to return census forms was initially extended from July 31st to October 31st due to delays caused by COVID-19. However, owing to pressure from the White House, that deadline has since been shortened to September 30th. This leaves local governments less than a month to ensure your citizens are accurately counted.

What Is U.S. Census Data Used to Measure?

The U.S. Census is a formal count of every person—citizens, legal residents, and undocumented immigrants—living in the United States and five U.S. territories. The census is conducted every ten years and provides critical data that helps determine how federal funds and resources are allocated for the next decade.

Key areas informed by the census include:

  • The number of seats each state has in the House of Representatives
  • Boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts
  • Distribution of federal funds for roads, schools, fire departments, water systems, and other critical infrastructure projects
  • Funding allocations for federal spending programs including Medicaid, Head Start, and SNAP
  • Where businesses open new store locations, restaurants, factories, and distribution centers

In other words, the census informs the financial and legislative decisions that impact the long-term health of our communities. “Every person (counted in the census) is $1,350 per year in resources back to the community or $13,500 over the next 10 years,” explains Jack Stonebraker of the Village of Melrose Park. Over “150 federal programs rely on census data to allocate resources to communities,” he continues. Once the census is complete, that important data will be more or less fixed for the next ten years.

Currently, just over 63% of households have responded online, by mail, or by phone to the 2020 census. That means approximately 40% of the United States population has yet to be counted.

Women going door to door helping people take the census

Why Is an Inaccurate Count Problematic?

An inaccurate census means that resources will not be appropriately allocated to the people who need them most. As articulated by Diana Elliott of the Urban Institute in an interview with The Washington Post, “[e]ven in non-pandemic times, the likeliest communities to be undercounted are typically also the most marginalized in the country...That includes communities of color, people living in rural areas or without permanent addresses, high-poverty neighborhoods, immigrant communities and places where government distrust is high. People in majority White and affluent communities, by contrast, are likelier to be counted.”

According to Stonebraker, one of the primary reasons marginalized communities do not complete the census—aside from government distrust—is a “digital divide.” A recent study from the Pew Research Center demonstrates that 21-30% of people living in the United States do not have regular or reliable access to an internet connected computer. That percentage is highest in rural communities and in suburban communities of color.

College girl outside home watching online class due to slow internet connection - concept of network issue at remote places and problem of virtual class or distance learning during pandemic

In the past, community leaders have reached these populations through in-person events— such as canvassing events outside shops or census-focused events at local parks—and knocking on doors.

The coronavirus pandemic, explains Stonebraker, “was more than a curveball, it was a bomb,” when it came to local census efforts. Necessary safety precautions, such as the Illinois Executive Order 2020-32 (i.e., the stay-at-home order), continue to make in-person census support a challenge.

Moreover, as NPR reporter, Hansi Lo Wang articulates in his recent NPR article on this subject, “[t]he condensed door-knocking time frame increases the risk of leaving out many people of color, immigrants and other members of historically undercounted groups from numbers that are collected once a decade to determine each state's share of congressional seats, Electoral College votes and an estimated $1.5 trillion a year in federal tax dollars for Medicare, Medicaid and other public services.”

How Can Local Governments Help?

  1. Create Your Own Event or Outreach
    1. Produce Drive-Through Event: give away free produce and PPE.
    2. Visit senior facilities and assisted living facilities to help people in those locations take the census.
  2. Collaborate with Community Partners Already Hosting Events
    1. Food pantries
    2. School registrations and school technology pick-ups; remote learning situations gives the opportunity to speak with parents about the census during technology pick-ups.
    3. Religious/spiritual communities; speak to your local religious/spiritual leaders about helping to inform the public about the census.
  3. Conduct a “Special Census”

As a last resort, your community can conduct a Special Census. A Special Census is when a community pays to update their population data after the formal census is completed. So doing allows for a more appropriate allocation of federal funds.

Full responsibility for the cost of the Special Census (approximately $100,000) falls directly on the governmental entity requesting the census. This price tag is another reason to do as much as you can to get accurate counts now. As previously cited, an undercount of your community will cost upwards of $13,500 per uncounted person over the next 10 years.

*For any in-person efforts, it is critical that all attendees and organizers observe COVID-19 safety precautions as recommended by the WHO and CDC.

How to Get Involved as an Individual

  • Make Yourself Count: Complete and return your household’s census at
  • Social Media: Encourage ten people in your network to complete their census. Challenge them to invite ten people as well.
    • Personalize and download images for Social Media HERE
  • Volunteer: Temporary part-time positions are still available with the U.S. Census. Candidates can apply HERE

With trillions of dollars in federal spending on the line, now is the time to make sure those in your community are counted!

Is your local government looking to decrease costs and maximize revenue without raising taxes?

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