With elections held almost every year, we've gotten pretty good at the process. But the task of counting every person in the United States happens just once a decade, adding another degree of difficulty to an already challenging 2020 census.
“You're creating a startup every 10 years,” said Rachel Blakeman, director of the Community Research Institute at Purdue University Fort Wayne. “If we did this every year, we would have a great system in place. It would probably look more like an election, because we know how to set up an election.”
The Census Bureau's decennial count is always a logistical challenge, but a tight labor market makes it more so.
“If you look at 10 years ago, we were in the depths of a recession. You had plenty of people ready to work,” Blakeman said. “If we look at year 2000, we were also in a strong economy. We are going to be able to figure this out, but the available workforce is much less flexible.”
More troubling, she said, is the current atmosphere of government distrust.
“It's a theme we have not seen in the past two censuses to the degree we can anticipate here,” Blakeman said, noting the source could be almost anything. It could be “if I tell them, are they going to take my guns away?” or distrust based on actual experience. Those who work with Fort Wayne's Burmese community know that refugees “have a distrust of government because that didn't go so well for them in Myanmar.”
But there's also the preoccupation with “fake news” and the “deep state,” according to Blakeman.
“It doesn't take very many people not to participate to throw everything off,” she said. “So, we have the traditionally hard-to-count, undercounted population, and then a whole other dynamic in the 'don't tread on me' folks. Each of those is going to have a different messaging strategy.”
The hard-to-count population is somewhat easier to target because statistical modeling shows who gets overlooked in census counts: Racial and ethnic minorities; people who do not speak fluent English; the poor and homeless; noncitizens without legal status; people with disabilities; young and mobile adults; children; those who live in nontraditional housing; people with low educational attainment; and members of the LGBTQ community.
But they must be targeted for counting because statistical sampling, as sophisticated as it might be, doesn't meet the Constitution's requirement of an “actual Enumeration.”
“When we say 'census,' that's exactly what it is,” Blakeman said. “A census is whomever turns it in, versus a sample. So, if you elect not to participate, we don't get to account for you in another way.”
Why it matters
The government doesn't count residents simply to know how many of us there are. The data are used in a multitude of ways, including the distribution of federal funding based on population. To that end, there is $800 billion at stake, or about $18 billion for Indiana.
Using census data, the federal government allocates payments for Medicaid, Children's Health Insurance Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Head Start, Section 8 housing, child care vouchers, special education grants, the National School Lunch program, the federal foster care program and more.
“If we undercount, that means we don't get the dollars,” said Blakeman, “This should not be an argument about whether we think SNAP should have more funding; (Women, Infants, and Children program) should have less funding. It should be 'there is a pool of money, and we as a community want our fair share.' We're not asking for more than we deserve; we're asking for what should be allocated to us based on the number of people living here.”
She also noted the correlation between those who tend to be undercounted and the benefit programs with population-based disbursements.
“When you look at the folks who are likely to be undercounted, statistically speaking, they are often under-resourced individuals: Children, racial and ethnic minorities, low-income households,” according to Blakeman. “They are most likely to be disadvantaged by the loss of the allocation.”
In the last census, children under age 5 represented the highest net undercount, with follow-up from initial outreach identifying an uncounted 2.2 million children.
Census information also serves as the basis for critical economic planning and industry work. Wonder why Trader Joe's hasn't opened a grocery store in Fort Wayne? It's likely because census data tells the company we don't have the right number of people living in the right place and earning the right amount of household income.
Researchers like Blakeman depend on timely and accurate numbers. She said some of the numbers she uses now are becoming less reliable because studies are modeled on the nearly decade-old data.
“It's kind of a refresh. It's sort of like turning off and on the computer,” she said of the decennial count. “We can rebuild the models for everything else.”
And just as numbers change, people move, noted Andrew Downs, associate professor of political science at Purdue Fort Wayne. Those population shifts make it necessary to reapportion representative seats in federal, state and local government, using newly collected census figures.
“Fort Wayne has changed dramatically from 20 years ago,” Downs said, noting the annexations that have expanded city limits. “If you look at the city, there are different ways to look at communities of interest. We stand to be affected negatively and positively based on how those are determined.”
With the Aboite annexation in 2006, city council districts were redrawn to add all of the newly annexed areas in the same district, with the argument being that they all came into the city at the same time, he said. After the 2010 census, council made only small redistricting changes, so Fort Wayne maps are overdue for careful reconsideration once the 2020 data is available.
Likewise, the new figures will be used to redraw Indiana's legislative districts and its U.S. House districts. Downs said Indiana is not expected to lose a congressional seat, as it did after the 2000 census.
“If we end up fighting over redistricting, it would not be the first time,” he noted. “Indiana went from about 1920 to 1960 without redrawing maps. We had a pretty unbalanced system and ended up in court.”
Indiana legislators, in an effort to preserve the power of rural – mostly Republican – voters, did not revise maps from 1921 until 1962, after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that Tennessee had violated the constitutionally guaranteed right of equal protection by refusing to reapportion.
Ensuring area residents are afforded the federal funding and electoral representation they deserve requires an accurate census. Mayor Tom Henry last month appointed members of the Fort Wayne Complete Count Committee, a group of community leaders whose charge is to ensure residents of diverse communities are counted.
Raquel Aragon Kline of Language Services Network and Joshua Gale of Just Neighbors are co-chairs of the committee, which met for a second session Friday.
Palermo Galindo, the city's Community Liaison, is working with the volunteer panel. He worked with the city's census committee in 2010 as well.
“Comparing the 2000 census to 2010, we really increased the participation rate in the historically undercounted populations and census tracts,” he said. “Ten years later, I'm very happy to report that people that helped us back in 2010 are very eager to continue this, because they understand the importance of getting everyone counted, including children.”
Galindo said committee members, representing Hispanic, Burmese and Congolese communities; youth organizations; education groups; the faith community and more, will work to ensure accurate information about the census is shared. That includes messaging on citizenship questions. After an extended legal battle, the Trump administration was permanently blocked from using the decennial census to ask about U.S. citizenship.
The Census Bureau is looking to hire people to conduct the count, Galindo noted.
“People who are bilingual are encouraged to apply at Census.gov,” he said. “They can be enumerators or work at the local offices. There are several positions open for Indiana.”
The official census date is April 1 for determining where you live, but forms will be sent in advance of that date. This is the first time respondents will have the option to answer online; mail-in and phone reporting still will be available.
The key is to stand up and be counted.
Karen Francisco is editorial page editor of The Journal Gazette.
January 2020: Census Bureau begins counting the population in remote Alaska.
April 1, 2020: Census day is observed nationwide. By this date, every home will receive an invitation to participate in the 2020 census. Once the invitation arrives, you should respond for your home in one of three ways: online, by phone or by mail. When you respond to the census, you tell the Census Bureau where you live as of April 1.
April 2020: Census takers begin visiting college students who live on campus, people living in senior centers, and others who live among large groups of people. Census takers also begin conducting quality check interviews to help ensure an accurate count.
May 2020: The Census Bureau begins visiting homes that haven't responded to the 2020 census to make sure everyone is counted.
December 2020: The Census Bureau delivers apportionment counts to the president and Congress as required by law.
March 31, 2021: By this date, the Census Bureau will send redistricting counts to states. This information is used to redraw legislative districts based on population changes.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau