The Census has officially entered the 21st century.
For the first time, the U.S. Census Bureau will let people respond to its mandatory questionnaire to determine the country’s population count online or by phone instead of filling out and mailing in a paper form.
“The process for this decennial, or this census count, is unlike any that have been done in the past,” Census Bureau partnership coordinator Ron Brown said. “…[These options will] make it easy for people to be able to respond and to get us their information back. We are also in an age of technology with a lot of things being done electronically or online, so we wanted to be able to avail that to people.”
The 2020 Census officially commenced on Jan. 21 when the bureau began counting individuals in remote areas of Alaska, starting with the rural village of Toksook Bay, but most households will receive mail with information on how to fill out the census between Mar. 12 and 20.
All households will have gotten an invitation to participate in the census by Apr. 1, which has been designated as Census Day nationwide.
While the majority of Americans will be able to respond online, by phone, or by mail, residents of remote areas, U.S. islands and territories like Puerto Rico, and group living arrangements, including on-campus university student housing and military bases, follow different procedures, where census takers have to conduct in-person counts or interviews.
Census Bureau workers are scheduled to visit shelters, soup kitchens, mobile food vans, and various outdoor locations to get a count of people who are experiencing homelessness from Mar. 30 through Apr. 1.
Census takers will visit college campuses, senior centers, and other facilities with large groups of people living together in April.
The full count will be completed by the end of July with the Census Bureau facing a Dec. 31 deadline to deliver numbers to Congress and the president, according to Brown.
As mandated by the U.S. Constitution, the Census Bureau has been conducting surveys to count every person in the country every 10 years since 1790. This year will mark the 24th iteration of the census.
In addition to determining the number of seats each state will be allocated in the U.S. House of Representatives, the census is used to draw congressional and state legislative districts, and the population count determines how more than $675 billion in federal funds will be redistributed to state and local governments annually.
The federal funding goes toward education loans and grants, housing subsidies, highway planning and construction, and other public services, including Medicaid and Medicare.
For every resident who is not counted in the census, the Northern Virginia could lose $1,200 a year in federal assistance program funds, according to Fairfax County.
“It’s critically important that all residents complete the Census,” Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chairman Jeff McKay said. “Its results impact the borders of our magisterial districts, and it’s used by the federal government to allocate funding for the services that localities provide like education, transportation, and housing. This is, of course, important so that we can meet the needs of our residents and ensure priorities, like affordable housing, reach every corner of Fairfax County.”
The population counts collected by the Census shape decisions beyond the government as well, McKay notes. They affect where families and businesses choose to locate, help community groups evaluate the needs of a particular locality, and inform emergency services in case of a disaster.
In order to raise awareness of the upcoming Census, the Board of Supervisors established a Complete Count Committee that McKay is co-chairing with retired Fairfax County social worker Tilly Blanding.
The committee is predominantly comprised of county staff and community leaders that belong to organizations like the Fairfax County NAACP, CASA Virginia, and the Centreville Immigration Forum that focus on historically undercounted populations.
McKay says it is especially important for the county to reach out to marginalized communities, including people of color and immigrants, after the federal government sought to add a question related to citizenship to the 2020 Census.
“Over the last decade Fairfax’s population has changed with significant increases in communities of color and immigrant communities,” McKay said. “Because of the distrust the federal government has sowed in the Census process among those communities, the onus is on local government and local groups to rebuild trust in the process.”
Generally, the Census just asks respondents about the number of people living in their residence and some basic information about their identity, including their age, gender, ethnicity, and race.
However, the U.S. Department of Commerce, which oversees the Census Bureau, spent almost two years attempting to add a query about an individual’s U.S. citizenship status to the census.
The bureau last asked all U.S. households about citizenship on the Census back in 1950, though the question has been included in other, smaller surveys, according to NPR.
The Trump administration’s plan to ask about citizenship and immigration status on the census first emerged in January 2017 when The Washington Post and Vox published a draft executive order directing the Census Bureau to include those questions in the decennial questionnaire.
The Justice Department formally asked the Census Bureau director to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census on Dec. 12, 2017, stating that the information would assist the department in enforcing Voting Rights Act protections against racial discrimination by helping calculate the number of voting-age citizens in specific localities.
Despite concerns that asking about citizenship status would result in an inaccurate count due to non-citizens opting to not respond to the Census out of fear, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced in March 2018 that the citizenship question would be included on the 2020 Census, and the Census Bureau included the question in a report of the planned questions that it sent to Congress that month.
Dozens of states, cities, and immigrant rights’ groups filed lawsuits against the bureau and the Commerce Department, most of them seeking to prevent the citizenship question from being added to the Census.
The Census Bureau started testing how the inclusion of a citizenship question would affect response rates last June.
A national study released by the bureau in 2018 found that the question would be a major barrier due to fears that data would be given to federal immigration authorities, though the agency and its employees are legally prohibited from sharing identifiable information on individuals even with law enforcement.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 27, 2019 that the Trump administration had failed to provide an adequate justification for adding a citizenship question to the census, sending the case back to lower courts that all barred the question from being included in the 2020 Census.
Assuaging any lingering fears about the upcoming census is one of the goals of Fairfax County’s Complete Count Committee, which kicked off its outreach efforts with a community dialogue at the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church on Sept. 25, 2019.
“A primary purpose of the Complete Count Committee is for county officials to come together with community leaders and nonprofits to think strategically, on how we reach absolutely everyone,” McKay said.
Brown says the Census Bureau does not anticipate significant issues in terms of ensuring that people respond to the 2020 Census now that the citizenship question has been removed.
“We don’t believe that is a concern for us, since that question will not be on the census form,” Brown said. “People are a lot more at ease and comfortable about that, so we don’t think that will deter from people filling out the census form.”
A bigger challenge for the Census Bureau right now is finding enough temporary workers, including census takers, field supervisors, recruiting assistants, administrative clerks, and supervisors, to support the critical, months-long count.
There is a particular need for bilingual applicants, and Brown says the bureau tries to hire people from the local community where they would work so that respondents see a familiar face.
Pay ranges from $15 to $40 an hour depending on the position and location. A census taker in Fairfax County, for example, earns $25 per hour on top of reimbursement for work-related mileage and expenses, according to the Census Bureau.
Brown says interested candidates can apply by calling the bureau’s toll-free number at 1-855-562-2020 or visiting the website 2020census.gov/jobs.
“We’re hiring for full time, part time, evening and weekends,” Brown said. “…We’re trying to encourage people to let them know we are still hiring. We have a lot of positions we have to fill, so we’re looking for a lot of applicants.”