by CHRIS ROGERS
It only comes once a decade, but it is a big deal.
It’s not a swarm of cicadas; it’s the U.S. Census. The constitutionally mandated headcount of everyone living in the U.S. will come to local communities this spring. It only contains 10 questions, but it will help determine how $28 billion in federal funding will flow to local and state governments in Minnesota and Wisconsin, according to The George Washington University. It may even decide whether Minnesota will lose one of its Congressional seats.
Local leaders have one message for area residents: please respond.
“It’s the law. It’s required by our constitution … and the numbers are tied to a lot of things people aren’t necessarily aware of,” Winona County Board member Marcia Ward said. “Local governments rely on those dollars that come from the federal government, and representation — if we lose representation, that would have huge impacts for us.” Filling out the census, she said, “it’s not time-consuming for you … You can do it quickly and very easily.”
For some, perhaps a more convincing argument is that once they fill out the census this spring, they will stop getting mailings, phone calls, and knocks at their door, asking them to respond.
The U.S. Census Bureau will send out letters and cards to virtually every home and apartment in the country starting in March. People who do not respond to the first mailings will get repeat mailings. People who still do not respond by May will have a census taker knock on their door or call them.
The Census Bureau has other methods for counting people living in group settings — such as nursing homes, group homes, residential treatment centers, and jails — as well as people experiencing homelessness. Mainly, the agency asks the organizations running those group-living facilities to enumerate their residents, and the bureau tries to count homeless people at shelters, food shelves, and soup kitchens where they receive services or by going directly to outdoor areas where they are living.
One key note for Winona — college students living away from their hometown should fill out the census based on where they live most of the year, as of April 1, 2020. That means, many college students should respond to the census in Winona, and their parents in towns across the country should not claim their college-age children as living at home, census officials explained.
“Our goal is to count everyone, only once, and in the right place,” U.S. Census Bureau Chicago Regional Director Marilyn Sanders wrote in a letter shared with local communities.
The agency has been opening offices across the Midwest and hiring staff in preparation for this spring. For local folks looking for flexible, part-time jobs, the Census Bureau is hiring census takers to go door-to-door to try to count people who do not respond on their own.
“We like to say it’s the largest peacetime mobilization in America,” U.S. Census Bureau Partnership Specialist Jim Accurso said. “It’s a big deal. We’re ramping up now.”
Thanks to court rulings, the 2020 census will not feature any question about respondents’ citizenship. People living in the U.S. — regardless of their citizenship or immigration status — are asked to respond to the questionnaire.
The census is available in 59 languages, including Hmong, Spanish, and American Sign Language, according to the bureau. For vision-impaired people, the census can be completed by phone or in-person with a census taker.
Last week, the Winona County Complete Count Committee — a group of local organizations and governments aimed at making sure Winona County is fully counted in the census — received a training from Accurso detailing the basics of the census and how the local committee could help get the word out.
When folks hear the message multiple times that the census is important, when they hear it from people they trust, that’s when the message breaks through, Accurso said. That is exactly the idea behind local complete count committees. Some citizens might not be so receptive to the federal government, but if local leaders tell them how important the census is, they are more likely to listen. “We know that it works. We know that it improves participation,” Accurso stated.
Several Winona service providers who work with older adults and developmentally disabled individuals had concerns about whether various disabilities would prevent local residents who lived on their own — and thus would not be captured as part of the Census Bureau’s group-living counts — from filling out the census. Census officials said they would work with those local partners to address such situations and make sure everyone is counted.
The committee went on to brainstorm about how to spread the word and make sure everyone in the Winona area knows what to expect. In a discussion about survey fatigue, Saint Mary’s University General Counsel Ann Merchlewitz said, “You talk about the general population being over-sampled, our students are way over-sampled. It’s going to be one more thing, but there’s no prize.”
Ward also highlighted another potential challenge for the census: lack of trust in technology.
For the first time this year, the U.S. Census Bureau will not be sending paper questionnaires, but telling people it prefers they respond online. Paper questionnaires are still available by request, and respondents may also complete the census by phone.
In his presentation, Accurso stressed the great lengths the Census Bureau goes to ensure the confidentiality of responses to the census. The identities of census respondents is protected and separated from the demographic information they submit. Census Bureau employees take a life-time oath to protect the confidentiality of respondents’ information, they receive annual trainings on data stewardship, and violating laws protecting that data is punishable by up to five years in prison, he noted. The Census Bureau works with the most advanced cybersecurity companies in the world to protect its information, uses encryption, and multiple layers of authentication, he said. When going door-to-door, census takers will use smart devices to gather information, but that data is automatically erased from the devices after being submitted, Accurso explained.
“By law, everyone is required to fill out their form,” Accurso pointed out. However, the agency does not prosecute people for not responding; it tries to educate, inform, and engage them to respond voluntarily, he explained.
The information the census provides is valuable to local businesses, organizations, and governments, Winona County Board Chair Marie Kovecsi said. “It’s just a civic responsibility. We have to provide basic information,” she stated.