The United States has conducted a census every 10 years for more than two centuries, but the 2020 one stands out as particularly momentous.
On top of the controversy surrounding whether or not the 2020 census would ask about a respondent’s citizen status (it won’t), it is the first that will allow residents to respond online, over the phone, or as a same-sex couple. The U.S. Census Bureau is also providing more language assistance than before, offering guides and call center operators to help with more than 60 languages.
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Given all the changes, here a refresher addressing Michiganders’ most frequently asked census questions:
What is the census, and why is it conducted?
The census is a headcount of the U.S. population that occurs every 10 years. It is run by the federal government through the U.S. Census Bureau.
The U.S. Constitution requires a count of the country’s population every 10 years so new congressional districts can be drawn. Regularly surveying where Americans live ensures that congressional representation reflects the distribution of the population and determines how many electoral votes each state possesses. Census counts also have a huge influence on the influx of federal dollars to particular states.
What questions will be on the census?
The 2020 census will ask: How many people are living or staying at your home on April 1, 2020; whether your home is owned or rented; your telephone number; the gender, race, and age of each person living in the home and their relationship to one another, and whether any person in your home is of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin.
You can see a mock-up of the full 2020 census in English and Spanish on the Census website.
(Puede ver un muestra del censo completo en Inglés y Español en el sitio web del censo.)
How is that information used and why is it important?
In addition to redrawing congressional districts, census data are used to determine how much federal funding states receive for a variety of programs, from the roads to food stamps. Michigan has $1,800 at stake for every person that is not counted, which would impact programs such as Medicaid or food stamps. It is also widely used in academic research across a range of disciplines to identify economic, social, political and other trends. That research can influence future public policy decisions.
Do you have to be a U.S. citizen to be counted?
No. The U.S. Constitution requires every person be counted, it does not delineate by immigration status. This includes “noncitizens, legal residents and temporary and seasonal workers,” a spokesperson for Kerry Ebersole, Michigan’s Census director, told Bridge Magazine.
Will the census ask whether or not I am a U.S. citizen?
No. In June, the Supreme Court rejected the question, with a majority saying it doubted the rationale the Trump administration provided for adding a citizenship question. The administration would have needed a different reason for adding the question to add it to the final list, but elected to start printing the census forms in July as initially scheduled without the citizenship inquiry.
Is the information collected by the census confidential?
Census data remain confidential for 72 years.
By law, the U.S. Census Bureau is barred from sharing any individual's data with anyone - whether that’s other federal agencies, states, individuals, or the public.
Any information released by the Bureau is distributed in chunks called “census blocks.” These are small geographic areas that contain aggregate response information from everyone who lives within the boundaries determined by the Census Bureau.
After 72 years, the federal government releases all census data to the public. The last release was in 2012, which was the census data from 1940, and the next public release comes in 2022 for 1950s data.
If I’m undocumented, or a person in my household is, what assurance can the government give this won’t be used against us?
Weaponization of immigration status is a widespread fear, according to findings from focus groups of U.S. residents conducted by the bureau.
“The immigrant is not going to trust the Census employee when they are continuously hearing a contradicting message from the media every day threatening to deport immigrants,” a participant in what was labeled an “Arabic focus group” told interviewers.
To counter fears, the U.S. Census Bureau is continually pushing the message that it is barred from distributing an individual’s information with any other agency. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will not have access to household response data.
“Every person” hired by the U.S. Census Bureau “is sworn for life to protect the data that is collected,” said Marilyn Sanders, Regional Census Director in Chicago. “And we do not share individual data. We produce statistics.”
So far, it hasn’t been enough to put many immigrant communities at ease.
“There was a cluster of mobile homes, all Hispanic,” a U.S. Census Bureau presentation reports an employee saying. “I went to one and I left the information on the door. I could hear them inside. I did two more interviews, and when I came back, they were moving.... It's because they were afraid of being deported.”
I heard the 2020 census can be completed online. Is this true? How will that work?
Yes, the 2020 census is the first that residents can answer online, over the phone, or by mailing in the traditional paper ballot.
Ninety-five percent of U.S. households will receive a mailer from the U.S. Census Bureau between March 12 and 20, inviting them to fill out the census online. The official URL for only responses has not yet been publicly released.
This mailer will include instructions about how to fill it out online. Reminder letters and postcards will be sent in the mail if you do not respond online within the first week or so.
If you don’t respond to invitations to respond online, you will be mailed a traditional paper ballot to fill out and mail back in mid-April. Any household that does not respond by phone, online, or mail by mid April will be visited by a Census employee who will conduct the survey in-person.
About 5 percent of U.S. households will receive the traditional paper ballot for them to fill out and mail back during the first round of mailers, rather than be invited to fill it out online. In addition, anybody can respond by calling the Census Bureau and answering the questions over the phone. Just like the online response option, this is a first for the Bureau.
How can I avoid a fake census or a census scam?
The Census Bureau’s movement to online or phone responses brings the possibility that you may encounter phishing schemes masquerading as the census on social media or through telemarketing. (The security of census data collection against cyberattacks has also come under scrutiny.)
To vet possible scams and keep personal information safe, Ebersole suggests residents keep an eye out for questions the census would “never ask,” such as your full social security number, financial information, donations, or contributions to any political party.
If somebody comes to your door to help you fill out the census in-person, she says official “census workers will have a photo ID badge with the Department of Commerce watermark, an expiration date and a laptop or bag with the Census Bureau logo.”
Will Michigan’s new independent redistricting commission use 2020 census data when drawing our new voting districts?
Yes. The main mission of the census is to assess the distribution of the U.S. population to accurately reapportion congressional representation, so the 2020 census data will be a part of what determines Michigan’s new voting districts. The U.S. Census Bureau is obliged to deliver census data to Congress by December 2020 so states have time to incorporate it in their redistricting process. Michigan’s Secretary of State will finalize the members of the new commission by August 2020, and they will have until Nov. 1, 2021 to create Michigan’s new voting districts.
Are census jobs available, and how can I apply for one?
The census is currently hiring “census takers, recruiting assistants, office staff, and supervisory staff.” Some positions are eligible for health-care benefits, and military veterans are eligible for hiring preference.
The most common job offered by the Census is for census takers, also known as enumerators. Enumerators are tasked with hitting the streets, walking to residences that haven’t responded to the census and helping those residents fill out the form. The Census Bureau needs to hire over 400,000 of them across the country to visit every home that does not respond.
At a census forum held in Michigan in September, Sanders, the Chicago census official, said it would be a priority to hire locals to work as enumerators, as residents are more likely to open the door for members of their own community.
To be eligible for a job, you must be at least 18 years old, a U.S. citizen, able to pass a criminal background check, and available to work flexible hours including evenings and weekends. You must have access to reliable transportation, whether that is a car or robust public transit, and have internet access and an email to complete online job training.
Hours are variable, based on the position’s needs and your schedule. The bureau says the positions typically last for several weeks. For census takers, pay is hourly, and the average rate across Michigan is $25 per hour. Average pay for every county is available on the census website.
You can apply for a job with the U.S. Census Bureau at 2020census.gov/jobs.