Census 2020: It’s Not Just the Government’s Job to Ensure We’re All Counted

Ron Wasserstein, ASA Executive Director, and Nora Cate Schaeffer, AAPOR President

In this land, we all count.

In 1790, Thomas Jefferson supervised the newly formed US government in conducting its first census of all people living in the country. The count: 3.9 million.

This year, the government is embarking on its 24th decennial census, as required by the Constitution, and the task is both epic and unprecedented. The estimated population has swelled to a record 330 million of us—21 million more than the last census in 2010—and the Census Bureau is planning to conduct most of its survey online for the first time.

The mass disruptions in daily life caused by the coronavirus crisis add to the challenge of conducting the census.

Census invitations arrived in mailboxes last month, and already 36 percent of US households have responded. (Wisconsin leads every other state and territory with a response rate of 44 percent. Way to go, Wisconsin!)

Census 2020: It’s Not Just the Government’s Job to Ensure We’re All Counted

Check your state’s response rate.

To ensure widespread participation, the Census Bureau hired a part-time army of 2.5 million workers and partnered with 300,000 community organizations, including religious, health care and civic groups. The Census Bureau hoped to deploy this massive field operation to encourage all of us to participate in the survey—including traditionally hard-to-reach people such as the homeless and those with disabilities, as well as children, immigrants, minority populations, and those living in both rural and densely populated areas.

The coronavirus, however, forced US Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham on Saturday to suspend this mass mobilization until April 15. This means it is more critical than ever that families take personal responsibility for completing the census either electronically, by phone, or by mail.

The social distancing required to limit the spread of the coronavirus will require special care to protect the health of Census enumerators who had hoped to go door-to-door in late May to count households that fail to respond online, by mail, or by phone to the 2020 Census.

In this time of national crisis, ensuring an accurate count should not be the burden of the Census Bureau alone. It falls to all of us to uphold the Constitution in this distinctly American ritual. We must all play a part in ensuring that our families, our neighbors, and our communities are counted.

Why is it so important we all be counted? Because nothing less than our well-being as individuals and communities is at stake long after the worst of the coronavirus passes. An estimated $1.5 trillion in federal dollars is distributed across the country each year for such vital services as local police and fire protection, hospital care, education, road improvement, and environmental protection.

An accurate population count bears directly on the coronavirus pandemic by helping governments develop disaster planning and ensuring that emergency supplies are distributed equitably to hospitals, which are scrambling to secure ventilators and other life-saving equipment.

In addition, an accurate census is critical to our economy when it returns to health, since businesses depend on the survey results to determine where to locate operations, how many people to hire, and what products and services are in short supply or surplus.

The Census is the foundation of equal representation.

And critically, the Census determines each state’s representation in Congress. The Census is the foundation of equal representation.

Clearly, we all have a huge stake in an accurate count. That is why we are urging everyone who lives in this great country of ours to pledge to “be counted” and volunteer your time to help count your relatives, friends, co-workers, and neighbors.

Surely, we all have an interest in seeing there are enough ambulances to care for the critically ill and fire-fighting equipment to prevent people from losing their homes.

We can’t find the best solutions to fight poverty and homelessness if we don’t know how many poor and homeless people there are and where they are concentrated. And an accurate count is essential to help us determine what areas are in need of more funds for health facilities, senior care, and schools.

Think of the Census as a giant GoFundMe campaign in which we donate information and time rather than dollars to make our communities stronger and the United States a vibrant country of 330 million people with a shared goal of opportunity and decent living conditions for all.

A well-functioning democracy depends on an informed citizenry with a high level of participation when elections are held. We are proud of our freedom to vote, which is why many of us wear “I voted” stickers after leaving polling places. It is both a badge of our precious values and a reminder to our fellow Americans that free and fair elections are so important.

The same can be said of an accurate Census. We should be proud to say, “I was counted,” and that we did our part to get others in our communities to participate, just as our bonds as Americans are being tested as we battle a dangerous virus.

After all, a comprehensive Census underscores the message that has resonated in the United States for the last 230 years: In this land, we all count.