After years of preparation and political battles over what it may ask, the once-a-decade effort to count all Americans through the 2020 census is now beginning in Utah.
Residents started received letters this week inviting them for the first time ever to respond online with a personal code they were given.But for those uncomfortable with the internet — such as older folk — the census also offers for the first time the option to handle questionnaires over the phone. Letters list numbers people may call for 12 main languages nationally.
Some people also have limited access to the internet. So much of rural Utah, for example, won’t receive an invitation to use the internet. Instead, they will be initially sent a traditional by-mail questionnaire.
Some American Indian reservations, where residences may lack street addresses, will have counters sent directly to homes. The census has worked with individual tribes about whether they feel address lists are adequate for mailings, or whether they prefer local counters to be deployed.
“Most people don’t realize how much the census and census data impact their daily lives. It impacts first and foremost funding both at the federal and state level,” said Evan Curtis, co-chairman of the Utah Complete Count Committee. The census will determine how the federal government divides $1.5 trillion a year among the states and communities.
That’s important enough that the Utah Legislature approved spending $1 million on advertising and education to help ensure that Utahns answer it. In comparison, California is spending $154 million. Also, the Census Bureau itself plans to spend more than a half billion dollars this year — more than ever — to promote the census as safe, easy and beneficial to communities.
The census helps to identify such things as where to build new schools and transportation projects. It helps enforce civil rights laws related to age, gender, race and ethnicity. It helps identify vulnerable populations during outbreaks of disease.
“Census data is also used for redistricting for our political representation,” Curtis said. “In order to be fairly and accurately represented not only in Congress but also in our state Legislature and all of our local offices as well, it’s important that you be counted.”
The census will ask no more than seven questions about each person: name, age (and birth data as a double-check), sex, race and whether they are of Latino origin. In homes with more than one resident, the census asks how all are related to the person filling out the form. They will be asked how many people are in the household, and whether it is owned or rented.
The Census Bureau projects that only six of every 10 households will respond on their own quickly. After five reminders (including one that encloses a paper questionnaire), the agency will start sending census workers to nonresponding homes — mainly from May until August.
If they can’t find people at home, they ask for information about them from neighbors, landlords and others.
While information is being collected online to save money, the Census Bureau scaled back plans for operations tests on online questionnaires for budget reasons. So the Government Accountability Office has said it has not fully demonstrated that the online system will work well and be secure.
Research shows that people have become less willing to return their census forms over time, sometimes because they do not trust the government or are too busy or not interested.
A big political battle last year led to distrust among Latinos. The Trump administration pushed hard to include asking respondents whether they are U.S. citizens, but the U.S. Supreme Court blocked that.
Still, many Latino groups worried the administration might somehow use Census information to round up undocumented immigrants. While Census information by law is confidential and bans such things, it has happened. In World War II, World War II Congress opened up census address data and used it in part to put people of Japanese descent into concentration camps.
Decades of research suggested that millions of people are missed by each census.
Officials say one group suffering the biggest undercount are children under 5 years old — and Utah is known for its many children. Theories include that young parents are so overwhelmed they forget to respond, or children sometimes are split between grandparents or divorced parents who think someone else is supposed to include them in responses. (They should be counted where they live most of the time).
Others groups with large undercounts include men in their 30s and 40s, minorities and renters. Reasons are complex, but often are associated with distrust in government, poverty and frequent moves.
LDS missionaries living abroad are not included in the census, thanks in part to decisions from lawsuits Utah waged when it missed getting an extra U.S. House seat in 2000 by just 80 people. Missionaries serving in other states are counted there. Military and federal officials who are deployed abroad, however, are counted in their home base.
Fast-growing Utah is not expected to gain another U.S. House seat this year, but could in 2030.
States expected to gain seats this year include Texas (it may gain three), Florida (2), Arizona, Colorado, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon.
Tens states are projected to lose one each: Alabama, California, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and West Virginia.