Until I served on a school board, I had only a vague understanding of the census. Every 10 years, as mandated in the Constitution, the government asks every household in America a handful of questions, from which it derives a boatload of data. It seemed like an interesting exercise that had little practical effect on my life.
Wrong. The census not only determines our political representation in Congress—the number of representatives our state is entitled to—but it also helps to allocate both local representation and federal dollars.
Do we get money for our hospitals and schools? It depends what the census tells us. Do we get dollars for transit or school breakfast programs or rental assistance or fire management or family violence prevention or emergency food support or agricultural experiment stations or special education preschool programs or watershed protection? It depends on our local count.Businesses and community planners use census data to determine where and what to build. Nonprofit organizations use census data to apportion services.
Traditionally, census participation lags in rural areas. We rural dwellers are harder to reach. In 2020, that difficulty will be compounded by the fact that much of the census will be online.
If you live in a place that lacks broadband coverage, reaching you and guaranteeing your participation will be even harder than before, yet the numbers derived from the census will decide whether our rural regions get federal help with economic development or whether rural hospitals lose their funding.
So, this is not just an interesting demographic exercise that tells us which states are gaining or losing population. It is meaningful both at the macro and the micro level; it affects people’s lives and livelihoods.
If you’ve never responded to a census before, the questions are simple and not terribly intrusive. The person who fills out the questionnaire for the household (usually one of the homeowners or renters) is considered Person 1.
The questionnaire will ask who resides in Person 1’s home on April 1, 2020, how old they are, what sex they are, what race and ethnic origin they are and specifically whether they are of Hispanic/Latinx/Spanish origin.
It will ask how the people in the home are related to one another. It will ask whether Person 1 rents or owns the home. Despite the administration’s efforts, it will not ask about immigration status, nor will the census share your personal data except as part of a general, anonymous statistic.
By April 1, 2020, every household in the nation should have received an invitation to respond to the census. In large households such as dorms and senior centers, census-takers may simply show up and conduct interviews or hand out questionnaires.
Census-takers will also attempt to count people who are homeless through direct contact in targeted areas and counts at shelters and meal centers. By May, local census offices will start sending census takers out to visit homes that have not responded to the initial invitation. You may apply to be one of these census takers, for a salary of $17/hour, by registering here: https://2020census.gov/en/jobs.
Although the census is a federal program, our local government has established a Complete Census Count 2020 Committee, chaired by Legislator Mike Lane. The other members are Leslyn McBean-Clairborne, Amanda Champion, David McKenna and Shawna Black. They are committed to ensuring that everyone in Tompkins County is counted, and they welcome your ideas about potential outreach and community connections at http://tompkinscountyny.gov/census2020/submit-ideas-census2020.
New York state will almost certainly lose one Congressional seat based on the 2020 census. A good count that reaches and includes everyone will keep us from losing more than one seat, and it will guarantee that we maintain the services needed to serve the population that actually exists.
Kathy Zahler is director of communications for the Tompkins County Democratic Committee. See the committee website at www.tcdemocrats.org.
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