The federal government needs a way to figure out how to appropriate more than $675 billion annually for programs that impact housing, education, transportation and other everyday facets of life.
The best way to do that: Count everyone, and see where they live.
That’s why the government conducts a census every 10 years, and the next one is basically here already. (The 2020 census began in Alaska on Jan. 21.)
Beginning in mid-March, households will get invitations in the mail to take the survey, which can be completed online, by phone or by mail. This is the first time the census can be filled out online.
Every home will receive the invite by April 1, and respondents should fill out the survey according to where they lived on this day. (If you move on April 8, for example, and haven’t yet filled out the census, you would fill it out as though you hadn’t moved.)
Census-takers, also called enumerators, will knock on doors from May to June to remind people who haven’t responded.
Why is the census important?
Not filling out the census means missing out on money. A study from John Washington University found that each person who doesn’t fill out the census costs their community about $972 annually
Multiply that by 10 years, until the next census, and that means missing out on almost $10,000 per person.
Rain Wilson, director of the Performing Arts Academy at Indiana Black Expo, said organizations committed to social justice can be negatively impacted when Black and brown people are undercounted in the census.
“Getting these numbers right affects money,” she said. “We need to let the money folks know we are here and have needs.”
Other than the hundreds of billions of dollars that the government needs to hand out for various programs, numbers from the census also determine how many congressional seats each state gets and how districts should be drawn.
The most representatives Indiana had was 13 from 1873 to 1933. The state had 10 representatives until the 2000 census, when it was reduced to the current nine.
What questions are (and aren’t) on the census?
There’s a section on the census for each person living in the home and asks about their age, sex, race, Hispanic origin and relationship to the head of the household.
The census does not ask about religion, income, education, employment or other more personal questions. (The U.S. Census Bureau compiles that data from the annual American Community Survey, which samples a limited number of people.)
The census also does not include a question about citizenship. U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross announced in 2018 the census would include a citizenship question, which many said would discourage Hispanic communities from filling out the census and result in undercounting.
The U.S. Census Bureau announced in 2019 it would remove that question.
What happens to the data?
Title 13 of the U.S. Code prevents the U.S. Census Bureau from releasing any identifiable information about individuals, households or businesses, even to law enforcement.
All staff take a lifetime oath to protect personal information, and any violation comes with a penalty of up to $250,000 and/or up to five years in prison.
To support historical research, the U.S. Code does allow the National Archives and Records Administration to release census records after 72 years.
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.