What you need to know about the 2020 Census, as the nationwide count begins (Updated)

Majority of households will complete the 2020 census online. — photo courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau

April update: Almost all colleges and universities have closed their campuses for the semester due to COVID-19, so the U.S. Census Bureau has issued a statement clarifying what students should list as their residence. Students are advised to use the location where they would have been living on April 1 under normal circumstances, rather than where they are actually residing on that date. Parents should not include college students who are temporarily home due to campus closures on their census forms.

July update: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Census Bureau has extended the response deadline. Individuals now have until Oct. 31 to fill out their census forms.

September updates: The U.S. Census Bureau announced in August it is ending its counting efforts a month earlier than previously announced. Individuals now have until Sept. 30 to fill out their census forms.

The saga over when the census will end continues. A federal district judge in California ruled that the Commerce Department had “never articulated a satisfactory explanation” for its decision to end the census early, according to the New York Times. The deadline to respond to the census is moved back to Oct. 31 — but it might change again since the Trump administration is appealing the ruling.

October update: Iowans who have not completed their census have limited time to submit their responses after the Supreme Court approved a request from the Trump administration to end the national count early. The Census Bureau will accept responses through Oct. 15 until 11:59 p.m. Hawaii time.

Iowans will begin receiving information in the mail starting on Thursday telling them how to respond to the 2020 Census.

While that sounds simple enough, understanding the census can be difficult — especially with information and misinformation floating around. The Pew Research Center found that most people know the census is coming and are ready to answer it — but don’t know key details, like how citizenship will not be asked and how this is the first count that will be done primarily online.

To make the census-responding process a little easier, Little Village put together a guide on what Iowans should know.

What is the census, and why does it matter?

The U.S. Census Bureau conducts the census every 10 years and has done so since 1790, as the U.S. Constitution — which took effect in March 1789 — mandates. (It looked a little different in 1790.)

The framers of the Constitution decided that population — not wealth or land — should determine representation in Congress. The goal is to count every single person who lives in the country and then use that to determine representation in government, as well as federal funds and grants.

There is more than $675 billion in federal funds divided between the states each year, which is then spent on schools, hospitals, roads, public works and other programs. A study done by George Washington University calculated that in fiscal year 2016, Iowa received $8.79 billion through 55 federal spending programs that were guided by 2010 census data.

“In the state of Iowa, almost all of our funding is based on that population, so it’s important to get it right,” Gary Krob, coordinator of the State Data Center in Iowa, said during an Iowa 2020 Census Complete Count Committee meeting on Feb. 6.

What will the 2020 census ask?

For this year’s census, households have the option to respond online, by phone or by mail. The Census Bureau is encouraging people to respond online, if possible. While this is the first time online responses are being prioritized, it’s not the first online census. There was an online option for the short version of the 2000 census.

Most Iowa households will receive a letter between March 12 and 20 with information on how to respond to the census online.


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In Linn and Johnson counties, residents can expect to receive a letter inviting them to respond online. Small parts of the counties will receive a hand-delivered packet.

The census is estimated to take 10 minutes and will ask:

• The number of people living or staying in the home on April 1, 2020

• If the home, mobile home or apartment is owned (with or without a mortgage or loan), rented or occupied without rent

• Phone number for one person

• Name, sex, age and race of each person

• Whether each person is of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin

• The relationship between the residents

The census will be available in English, Spanish and 11 additional languages. Respondents can also call 1-800 numbers to get help in one of the 13 languages. There are videos and guides available in 59 languages.

Will there be a question about citizenship? Can my responses be used against me?

Citizenship status will not be included on the 2020 census.

President Donald Trump wanted to add the question, but federal courts blocked the administration from doing so. Still, Bridge Michigan reported that immigrant communities are concerned about the census, which could create distrust and deter some from completing it.

And research from the Census Bureau showed one in four people are “extremely concerned” or “very concerned” their census responses will be used against them. This concern was higher among Asian, Hispanic and black people.

Federal law prohibits the Census Bureau from sharing personally “personally identifiable information” with other government entities, including law enforcement agencies. Census responses can only be used to produce statistics — the responses can’t be used by a government agency or court against the respondents.

Census workers are sworn to confidentiality. Violating the law is a federal crime that could result in a prison sentence of up to five years, a fine of up to $250,000 or both.

What are “hard-to-count communities”? What are the implications of an undercount?

The goal of the census is to ensure that everybody is counted, but there are communities who are harder to count because they are difficult to locate, contact, interview or persuade.

Screen grab of City University of New York’s Graduate Center interactive map showing hard-to-count communities in Linn and Johnson counties.

Hard-to-count populations include young children, racial and ethnic minorities, non-English speakers, low-income individuals, people experiencing homelessness or people who might not trust the government, according to the Census Bureau.

The City University of New York’s Graduate Center created an interactive map to show the areas of the country at risk of being undercounted. Both Linn and Johnson counties have areas at risk.

The map also shows the undercount risk for young children, which is another concern. Both Linn and Johnson counties have areas that are high risk and very high risk of undercounting young children.

An undercount of 1 percent could cost Iowa $38.6 million, a George Washington University study found. For every person not counted, Iowa loses $1,268.

What are some potential problems?

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report on Feb. 12 identifying potential concerns with the upcoming census, including the internet response system, cybersecurity and how not enough workers have been recruited.

“The technology innovations that the bureau intends to rely on for the 2020 census create opportunities for efficiency and effectiveness of the count,” Nick Marinos, the director of IT and cybersecurity at GAO, told lawmakers, according to the Hill. “However, they also bring with them significant cybersecurity and IT risks. Ultimately the success of operations in the upcoming months will be directly tied to how the Bureau continues to manage these risks.”

A census job recruitment sign in front of the Robert A. Lee Community Recreation Center in Iowa City on March 6, 2020. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

With most people expected to respond online, there is also the issue of combating false and inaccurate information that might negatively influence response rates.

The Census Bureau announced last December that they’ve established a Trust & Safety Team to “ensure the public is properly educated on how the 2020 Census affects everyone.”

Part of the team’s role is working with social media platforms. Facebook announced its census interference policy in December that “bans misleading information about when and how to participate in the census and the consequences of participating.”

But the degree to which Facebook will enforce that new policy has been called into question.

The Trump campaign was running 1,000 Facebook advertisements “urging users to ‘take the Official 2020 Congressional District Census today,’” journalist Judd Legum, who writes the Popular Information newsletter, reported on March 5.

Facebook initially told Popular Information the Trump ads do not violate their new policy because it is clear the ads are not about the official Census since they also mention his campaign. But after Legum published his report, the company reversed its decision and took down the ads.

Facebook’s policy communications manager Andy Stone posted the company’s statement on Twitter:

As a reminder, the official census will only ask the questions listed above. For reference, the Census Bureau has posted a sample copy of the 2020 census paper questionnaire and a video demonstrating the online questionnaire.

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