By now, most people in the U.S. should have received an added piece of mail: an invitation from the Census Bureau to respond to the 2020 census.
This year the bureau has sent mailers to 95% of American households with either a unique census ID for the online questionnaire or the paper version of the survey.
For those considering throwing that mailer away or unsure of how their answers have an impact, here’s a nuts and bolts guide to the census and why it matters.
What is the census?The census is a population and demographics count of every person living in the country that occurs every 10 years. The government’s ability and responsibility to take a population count is laid out in the first article of the Constitution.
The 2020 census marks the first time in the survey’s 240-year history that respondents can fill out and submit their responses online. People may also respond via phone, with the mailed paper form or with the help of a census worker after April 1.
What is asked?The form asks a series of basic answers about the makeup of the household as of April 1. Questions include the number of people staying or living in a home; whether the home is owned or not; the name, age, date of birth, race and sex of each person in the home; the relationship of each person to the census respondent; and whether each person is of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin.
All of the data collected by the Census Bureau is private and protected under federal law and cannot be released by the government until 72 years after the census date.
While the majority of the questions asked haven’t changed in decades, the 2020 census does provide greater freedom in some responses than previous surveys.
The questions on race now asks that people of all races write in their heritage and provides some examples on which groups might identify with each term. The write-in option was previously only offered to people who identified as Hispanic.
The question on household relationships includes same-sex and opposite-sex options for married and unmarried couples.
What isn’t asked may be equally important. There is no question about whether respondents are citizens. The Trump Administration in July dropped its plan to add the question after the Supreme Court rejected the argument that it was needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act.
Opponents had argued the question would prevent non-citizens from responding. The Pew Research Center in a January survey found more than half of its respondents believed the citizenship question would still be included.
Why does it matter?For federal funding
The federal government uses census counts to decide how to allocate tax dollars across a plethora of programs. An undercount in Minnesota means less money for Medicaid, student loans, special education, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Section 8 Housing Choice vouchers and highway and infrastructure projects, among other things.
“These are tax dollars that we as Minnesotans are sending off to Washington,” Minnesota State Demographer Susan Brower said during a recent presentation to the Scott County Board. “The census is one of the ways we get them back.”
A George Washington University study estimated Minnesota received more than $24 billion in 2017 related to its 2010 census counts.
For political representation
Census numbers are also used to divvy up the U.S. House’s 435 seats. Seats are reapportioned after every census to match where population grew or declined.
“It’s set so that we can make sure that we have equal representation,” Brower said. “We don’t have any other way of making sure that our political districts are equal and fair.”
Minnesota has had eight congressional districts since 1973, but depending on growth in the state and the rest of the country, Brower said Minnesota may lose its eighth congressional seat. The seat could be lost by a margin of as few as 7,000 people.
“It’s very much in our capacity to make that up with a good count,” she added.
If the state does lose a district, a higher response rate for the census means the Minnesota Legislature will have a more accurate count of the state’s population and fairly can redraw districts to an equal size.
“It’s a matter of fairness across the board,” Brower said.