Stand up, America. It’s time to be counted.
In the past week, a letter should have arrived where you live, asking the adult in charge to complete a form called the 2020 Census. The census (pronounced SEN-suss) is a once-every-10-years tally of everyone living in the United States. It asks who lives in a household, how they are related and their age, race and other information.
This is a huge task. It’s important that everyone be counted, because the federal government uses that information to determine how many seats in Congress each state should have. If a state loses population, it might lose a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. If its population is growing, it might gain a seat.
Equally important, census numbers help decide how to divvy up more than $675 billion in federal money each year. Those funds help states and communities build roads, schools, hospitals and fire departments. More than 100 programs, including Head Start and food assistance for low-income people, also rely on the census to direct funds to where the need is greatest.
This year marks the 24th national people count, which the Constitution requires be held every 10 years. The first census, in 1790, was early in the presidency of George Washington. About 650 men set out on foot or horseback to count everyone living in their assigned areas.
Washington and the secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, both thought the final number — nearly 3.9 million people — was low. Quarrels and quibbles have dogged just about every census since then.
After all, it isn’t easy getting a snapshot of the entire country for a single day. (Census Day has been April 1 since 1930.) The U.S. population grows by one person every 23 seconds because of births in the nation and arrivals from other countries. People living in rural areas, the homeless and children who split their time between two homes present challenges to getting an accurate count. The U.S. Census Bureau says that about 1 million kids younger than age 5 were not counted in 2010. That was the highest number for any age group.
Officials have tried to simplify this year’s process. For the first time, responses can be made online, as well as by phone and mail. To help people who speak little or no English, officials have prepared guides in 60 languages, plus Braille for the blind.
Each head of household — even someone living alone — must fill out a census form or face a fine. No citizenship question is asked. This has eased the concerns of some who said asking about citizenship would reduce the response rate of immigrants and result in less funding for their communities.
The Census Bureau is required by law to protect people’s privacy. No one will be identified by name when officials analyze the numbers the census collects.
But for anyone tempted not to respond, know this: The people who are census-takers are like a dog looking for that tasty bone he buried. They don’t give up easily. Ignore their letter, and more will follow, because they really want everyone to be counted.