The Census is Coming, the Census is Coming!

April 1, 2020, is officially Census Day, when all Americans (so the Census Bureau hopes) will be counted in the 24th decennial census. This is the first census in which “self-response” via the Internet and phone will be possible. And the Bureau is hoping that many will participate electronically. For those without Internet access, paper options will still be available.

In 1790, around 650 U.S. marshals carried out the nation’s first decennial census, as mandated in the Constitution. The Founders recognized the importance of counting the population.  Today, the Census Bureau is the federal government’s largest statistical agency. If you’re excited about searching the 2020 Census, you’ll need to be patient! Public access to the decennial census is embargoed for 72 years; results of the 1940 census became available for searching in 2012, but aggregate statistical data derived from the census are released as soon as they are available, most likely toward the latter part of next year.

What This Means for Bedford

Census results have a major impact on redistricting and on distribution of federal funds to municipalities for everything from road building to support for public education.  Once the major field operations are wrapped up, data processing, editing, and preparation for publishing will begin in earnest, with “apportionment counts due to the President fewer than six months later, and redistricting data due to the states fewer than nine months later.”

The first enumeration officially begins on January 21 in Alaska.  In March, the Census Bureau will mail invitations to nearly every household in the country and activate the online response form. The Bureau is currently hiring workers – you may have found a card inviting you to be a worker in your mailbox recently.

What are the Questions on the Census?

Basically, the Census questions are simple:

  • How many people are living or staying at your home on April 1, 2020?
  • Whether the home is owned or rented
  • About the sex of each person in your home
  • About the age of each person in your home
  • About the race of each person in your home
  • About whether a person in your home is of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin
  • About the relationship of each person in your home

Here’s a link to an explanation of each question:

What about The Citizenship Question?

You may recall the controversy over whether the question of citizenship could be included in the 2020 census. In July, the Supreme Court, in a divided decision, ruled that this would be a violation of federal law.  Many feared that including the question would discourage as many as an estimated 9 million people of color or immigrants from filling out the census, resulting in an undercount. Others are concerned over cybersecurity, since this will be the first census conducted primarily online. The Bureau is currently posting a barrage of public messages, in an effort to assure Americans of the privacy and security of the data collected.

What’s the Timeline?

The big push begins in March with a series of mailings to every household. Quoting from the Census Bureau’s Budget presentation to Congress in March 2019, “this will be the most automated and high-tech decennial census in history. There is an advertising campaign underway to get the word out about the census and to help maximize self-response so as to minimize the far-costlier in-person visits to nonresponding households.”

Even though many will “self-report,” Census workers will still need to go into the field to find those non-responding households and to count Americans in special situations – persons living in group quarters, without a usual residence, those in transitory situations, and those living in rural or remote geographical locations that preclude mailed materials.

Alma Hart and Lyrl Ahern are two Bedford residents who worked on the 2010 census.  Both had to take an exam and undergo training before they began work.  Both were engaged in the “mopping up” operation after the first round when workers go into the field to find households that did not report in the first go-round.  Hart worked in Bedford while Ahern’s territory was Acton, where she was living at the time.  Sometimes, Ahern said, there would be an apartment in another part of the property, perhaps in a barn or other dwelling, that was missed in the first count. Hart explained that the fieldwork required courtesy, patience, and persistence to get the necessary information.  Some might be fearful of an interaction with the federal government, although the Census Bureau puts the privacy of data as one of its top priorities.  She also said field workers must observe very careful boundaries: they are not allowed to step inside a home or to park in the homeowner’s driveway.

If you have signed on to be an “enumerator,” The Citizen would like to hear about your experiences as this massive effort gets underway.

What does the Census cost?

Taking the census is a huge and costly undertaking. The 2020 Census is now estimated to cost approximately $15.6 billion. The average cost for counting a housing unit increased from about $16 in 1970 to around $92 in 2010 (in 2020 constant dollars), in part because the nation’s population is more difficult to count. It will be interesting to see if the ability to complete the survey online will reduce this

Although you may not be able to research the decennial census for 72 years, the Bureau issues a wealth of accessible data that you can tap into now.  For instance, the 2014-2018 American Community Survey 5-year Estimates, which covers the population down to the zip code and “block” level, was released on December 19.  The ACS is the only source of local statistics for most of the 40+ topics it covers – educational attainment, occupation, language spoken at home, ancestry, and others. The Citizen will take a look at that report to pick up the latest data for Bedford.

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