By now you’ve likely heard the radio ads, seen the TV commercials or passed the strategically placed billboard reminding residents to complete the 2020 Census. If you live in an apartment, own a house, rent a room or live with someone who does, one of you should have received a census form in the mail along with a second letter confirming a survey was sent to that location. Both request the head of household mail, call or preferably submit their answers online. The federal government is undertaking this full court press to ensure a high participation rate. Why? Because participation helps to determine where funding goes.
Social scientists and emergency planning experts use census data to determine how services – like fire responders, police, EMS, teachers, social workers, etc. – should be staffed and where distribution most likely will be needed. Businesses use census data to drive decisions regarding where to build factories, facilities and stores. The federal government uses the data to determine our congressional representation in the U.S. House of Representatives. The population statistics influence how $800 billion of federal funds will be distributed affecting where schools, hospitals, roads and other public works are placed.
These are compelling reasons, but exhortations to complete this year’s census are going unheeded. Fortune magazine reported in April that response to the census was only 36.2 percent. A decade ago, more than half the questionnaires had been completed by that time. Maybe the delay is due to our nation being engulfed by the novel coronavirus. Perhaps the reason is more pedestrian – fear. Concerns about loss of privacy or unwanted intrusion from law enforcement, child protection services or the IRS inflame those already distrustful of government, snuffing out any spark of action the receiver might take. Better to lay low, they think, than risk exposure. The result? The original form of social distancing. The government calls out: “You must comply!” The public’s countermand response: “No can do!”
So, before you or a loved one receives a knock on the door from a census taker asking about who lives at that address, let us explore three aspects regarding the 2020 Census you might have forgotten.
Mandated by Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, the census is required by law to be performed every 10 years. Inaugurated in 1790, the goal of the census as explained on www.2020census.gov, is to provide a “snapshot of our nation.” The data collected presents statistics about who we are, where we live and the type of relationship we have with the people who live with us. The objective is to count every resident living in the United States – regardless as to whether that person is a citizen, noncitizen legal resident or a legally unauthorized resident.
The legally unauthorized resident question, some might recall, protracted a hullabaloo regarding whether a question about citizenship could be added to the 2020 Census. If you’re interested in a deeper dive, visit NPR.org and listen to a three-minute podcast on the subject produced in 2018 by “Morning Edition.” The short version as to how the kerfuffle was resolved reports that in March 2018, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross ordered the Census Bureau add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. Ross’s directive triggered a legal imbroglio. More than two dozen states and cities (along with other groups) filed six lawsuits against the Trump administration demanding the question be removed. Claimants feared inclusion of a citizenship question would suppress the census participant response rates. As the legal challenges advanced through courts, Secretary Ross was called before multiple congressional sub-committee hearings to explain his rationale. He swore under oath the U.S. Justice Department pressured him to include the citizenship question because they needed the data to defend the Voting Rights Act. Prior to Ross’s order however, a question regarding citizenship had not appeared on the U.S Census since 1950.
Fast forward to November 2018. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Trump administration’s request to delay hearing the case. Shortly before the justices heard oral arguments it was publicly disclosed that Ross had lied under oath. The impetus for the citizenship question had not come from the U.S. Department of Justice needing data to defend the Voting Rights Act, as he alleged. Instead, emails proved the request came from Steve Bannon, a senior adviser to President Trump and other White House associates. In June 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in a 5-to-4 decision to block the proposed question from the census.
Defeated, President Trump announced a few weeks later he would abandon further litigation. In its place, he pledged his administration would track the status of non-citizen residents through other means, revealing without pretense why he wanted the citizenship question. The debacle – and discovery of the administration’s deceit – laid bare the perverse correlation that occurs when questions of ethnicity, race and citizenship are tied to machinations used to advance political power. The lesson learned for readers? Such brawls should be expected. They have existed since before our nation’s founding. Our response to naked power grabs like this should be active engagement, not silent retreat in fear. For this reason alone, every resident receiving a census form, regardless of their citizenship status, should complete one.
Did you know refusal to answer all or part of the census carries a $100 fine? Did you know a penalty of $500 can be levied if a person is found guilty giving false information? And as far as privacy and data security are concerned, the website www.howstuffworks.com explains in their post, “How the Census Works” that, “By law, the Census Bureau cannot share census answers with other government agencies, including welfare agencies, immigration, the police or FBI, the Internal Revenue Service, courts or the military. Under the provisions of Title 13 of the U.S. Code, census workers who break this law face up to five years in prison or $250,000 in fines or both.” The website’s post reminds readers, “Millions of questionnaires are processed without any breach of trust.” There’s no need for apprehension. We can have confidence the census data we submit will not be used against us.
This last one is for all the ancestry research geeks out there. U.S. law requires individual level census data remain private for 72 years. This is to protect personally identifiable information from going public. In 2012, the Bureau released and posted data from the 1940 census online through the National Archives. Data from 1950’s census will be released in April 2022. Failure to complete the 2020 Census will deprive descendants you may never meet the opportunity to glean information about your life and the lives of those who lived with you when the census was taken. How else will they discover your name, where you lived and when you were born?
Beyond fragments of family lore passed down orally through generations or the random picture that survives with no name, how will your great granddaughter piece together your existence without a public record to guide her? How will a great, great grandson learn that his name was not first his grandfather’s, but yours? Census records are often the primary vehicle used when conducting ancestry research. Then, after names, dates, and locations are discovered other vital records – like birth, death and marriage certificates are collected. Don’t deprive family members 80, 90 or 150 years from now information you could easily provide today. Leave your mark. Complete your census.