By Hailey Leek
A major effort that happens once every 10 years is set to begin in March of 2020: the census. The purpose of the census is to count 330 million people living in the United States.
Why does the census matter to you and your community? Because the data collected is used to make crucial decisions at the federal, state and local levels that impact you and your family. It is your right and civic duty to participate in the 2020 census to make sure you’re represented and have access to important services for the next 10 years.
At its core, the census is about political representation and giving voice to every citizen, regardless of immigration or housing status, age, race, income, gender, or ability. But it’s also more than that.
For example, census data redraws school district and congressional boundaries. Increases in the population also determine how many seats our state gets in Congress. In the 2000 census, Utah lost the opportunity of receiving a 4th seat in the U.S. House of Representatives by 856 people. We didn’t get an additional seat until after the 2010 count.
Census figures also help governments and businesses make decisions about where new hospitals and fire stations, and even where the next Target should be built.
The data brings more than $5.6 billion dollars to Utah to pay for programs like Medicaid, Free and Reduced School Lunch and Pell Grants for college students. And it helps federal agencies monitor compliance with anti-discrimination laws, including the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Right Act.
The United States has been collecting census data since 1790 after our Founding Fathers put the requirement into the Constitution. They believed that the representation that comes from the census is fundamental to democracy — something they didn’t have when the original 13 colonies were still under British rule.
In 1790, census takers crossed the country on horseback and foot to take the count, although it wasn’t an inclusive survey. The census only counted free white men of a specific age, along with free white women and slaves. Such imbalances would persist over the next century, with black men and women originally being counted as three-fifths a person and indigenous people not counted at all.
Census-taking has changed a lot over time, but some communities remain difficult to count. Historically, those of African descent, Latinos and indigenous people are undercounted in each census, leaving them excluded from full participation in the democratic process.
There has been some concern over a proposal to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census. That effort was blocked by a Supreme Court decision and the question will not appear on the coming survey.
The survey will ask you questions like: how many people are living in your household and whether your home is owned or rented. Your responses help identify important trends in our society and how to support our changing and growing communities.
Completing the census in 2020 is both a political act and am important statement. It’s like raising your hand to say, “I count, and my community deserves to be heard.”
It’s also safe and private. Reponses to the census are protected by Title 13 of the United States Code. Personal information can’t be shared with any court, government agency, law enforcement or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Census Bureau employees are also sworn for life to protect your confidentiality. Violating the law is a serious federal crime punishable by a prison term of up to five years and fines.
Therefore in 2020, take a stand and make sure you’re counted. Here’s how to participate:
- Complete the census either online, by mail or phone by April 1st. Non-English and Spanish speakers can complete the census online or by phone in 14 other languages. Video and printed guides are also available in 59 other languages. If you haven’t completed the census by April 1st, a Census Bureau employee will visit your home to collect your response in-person.
- Protect yourself from scams and misinformation. The Census Bureau will never ask for social security numbers, bank or credit card account numbers or for money. It is also your duty to share accurate and reliable information on social media and with your networks. Check sources before you share.
- Encourage family, friends and your community to participate.
Get counted, because some people are counting on you not to participate. All it takes is 10 minutes of your time to ensure you and your community have the resources and representation needed to thrive over the next 10 years.
Hailey Leek is the Census Coordinator for the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office. Her career has focused on youth empowerment and expanding access to higher education for students of all backgrounds.