The decennial census is much more than just a headcount. It determines many things that can affect your life, from funding for public services in your local community, to how many congressional seats your state gets in the House of Representatives. Every 10 years, the United States conducts a comprehensive account of every person, citizen or not, living in the country so they can accurately apportion government funding.
“The $675 billion of federal funding—those are our tax dollars—gets returned to the states, counties and local cities based on population,” explains Beland Huang, a partnership specialist at the U.S. Census Bureau. “For example, if [a city] gets undercounted, then they’re underfunded, so a lot of people’s lives are affected that way.”
The census is something that’s meant to help people and communities, and it’s important that everyone living in the United States participates because it will affect the next 10 years of their lives. East West Bank has partnered with the U.S. Census Bureau to bring greater awareness about the importance of the census and how it helps your communities. Here’s what you need to know.
The United States has conducted a comprehensive population count since 1790 and has done so every 10 years since (hence the term “decennial”). The Census Bureau conducts other surveys—such as the American Community Survey, which asks more detailed questions, but only samples a portion of the population—but the decennial census is the most comprehensive, since it involves the entire nation.
There are nine questions on the census that are meant to provide a quick statistical snapshot of the country. “Basically, it asks for your name; if you’re the person in the household filling out everything; the names of everybody who lives with you, and how many people live at this address; date of birth; sex; you can choose your race or multiple; whether you rent or you own; whether you’re Hispanic or not,” shares Huang. “That’s about it.” Although there were concerns about whether a citizenship status question would be included, the Supreme Court ruled that it would not be allowed on the census questionnaire.
This year also marks the first time the census will be available online. In mid-March 2020, most households will receive a letter in the mail with directions on how to access the census online. Those households that do not receive mail will either have a census taker drop off the questionnaire or will be counted in person (although this only happens to less than 1 percent, and mainly to people living in extremely remote areas). If you don’t immediately fill out the questionnaire, you will receive three mail reminders through the end of April.
“Ten minutes of your time shapes 10 years of your future.”
However, you don’t need to complete the census online. If you haven’t submitted your census by the third reminder, you will receive a physical copy of the census that you can mail back, postage-free. Huang also notes that you can call in to answer the census questions.
Although the physical copy of the census is only available in English and Spanish, Huang says that both the online and dial-in options offer 12 different non-English languages for you to choose from. They will also provide language guides, language glossaries and language identification cards in 59 non-English languages.
The data provided by the census is an important metric for the U.S. and local governments to not only determine how much funding to allocate and for what purposes, but also how to divide out political representation.
“Census data is used to apportion congressional seats,” says Huang. “Congressional seats—435 House representative seats—is a set number and is distributed to all the different states based on population.”
Should a state’s population change, that could mean it could gain or lose representation. For instance, after the 2010 census data was released, Texas received four more congressional seats, Florida gained two seats, and six other states each gained one additional seat due to population growth, while 10 states lost seats.
The census can also affect representation on a state level. Each state will receive the census data, and some states will then use that information to redraw voting districts based on any population shifts. Huang uses California’s Inland Empire as a prime example of a region that will likely need to be redrawn. “Compared to 10 years ago, there’s a lot of people living in there right now, and they need representation,” he shares. “Somehow, you’ve got to shift the boundaries over there to have those new people living there included and have their voice heard in the government.”
On a local level, the census can help identify the types of services your community needs the most. For instance, the Asian American population in the San Gabriel Valley grew by 22 percent from 2000 to 2010, and more than two-thirds of the total Asian American population is comprised of immigrants. That means there is likely a greater need for services that cater to this demographic, and the best way for that segment to receive those is to complete the census, says Huang.
“I hear some voices saying, hey, how come some places have ESL (English as a Second Language) classes in certain school districts to help immigrants—how come my kid’s school doesn’t have a Chinese-speaking TA to help my child assimilate into U.S. society?” Huang shares. “The city needs to know we have this many Chinese people, that the Chinese population has grown this much, and that means we need to staff more people in the school districts. There are endless ways that this might affect your life.”
On a broader scale, filling out the census can help enable you to exercise your rights, such as by providing written materials in different languages. It could be voting pamphlets or health care brochure. The only way government officials will know what languages to include is if you fill out the census questionnaire stating your race and/or preferred language.
Huang adds, “The decennial census is so important because it has to do with money and power—money that comes back to the community and representation in our government. So, 10 minutes of your time shapes 10 years of your future.”
Decennial census data is used to determine how many congressional seats each state gets in the House of Representatives.
In today’s political climate, there are plenty of concerns surrounding a government-backed organization that is looking to collect data on every person living in the United States, but the census is actually very safe.
“Literally the guy you order pizza from knows more about you than the census asks,” emphasizes Huang. “You order takeout, they know your credit card number, where you live, what you look like, what time you’re home.” Although the census asks for identifying information like names and addresses, none of that is ever released, nor is it shared with any other government agency. In fact, sharing that data with anyone, even another government agency, is actually against the law, Huang points out.
Another common misconception is that the census involves government agents knocking on people’s doors and invading their privacy, says Huang, although a small percentage of people do receive home visits. However, you can submit the census online, by phone, or by mail, without even having to talk to a government worker unless you want to. The only time the Census Bureau would go in person and “knock on your door” is if they can’t reach you by phone or mail after multiple attempts.
“We don’t knock on doors unless you don’t do it,” Huang says.
The U.S. Census Bureau aims to be as thorough as possible with the decennial census, but there are certain populations that are deemed “hard-to-count” populations and require extra efforts from individuals and community partners.
For some groups of people, forming a volunteer complete-count committee is the best way to disseminate information about the census. “What that is, it’s a committee dedicated to outreach for the census, and to basically allow their community to get a voice through the census,” explains Huang. The Census Bureau partners with local, trusted community leaders and nonprofit organizations who know their target demographic and can best perform the outreach for these hard-to-count populations, which include immigrants, children under five, senior citizens and the homeless.
For example, Huang says he’s been working with a local partner to engage Los Angeles’s Persian American community. “In the past, when they fill out the census, in terms of race they just check white because Persian Americans consider themselves white,” he reveals. “But this lady told me that because that’s what everybody is doing, she hardly ever sees services being provided in her native language, which is Farsi.”
Huang adds that they are also recruiting people to work the census. “As you can imagine, we have over 300 million people living in the U.S.,” he says. “We need a lot of people to work the census. Right now, until all the way in May, we’re going to be hiring. We’re hiring lots of people for all the different local census offices. It’s a great way for people to get involved in the community.”
The position only lasts until the census is complete, can be part-time or full-time, and you can work from home or the office, says Huang. The only requirements are you must be at least 18 years of age, have a valid Social Security number and be a U.S. citizen.