We’ll be blunt: If you’d like to keep getting more than $16.7 billion each year — of the federal tax dollars that you pay, by the way — to share among yourself and your 7.5 million fellow Washington residents, then you’ll need to respond this year during the 2020 census that begins its count in April.
That $16.7 billion is the state’s share of an estimated $883 billion distributed annually nationwide, and it flows through more than 50 programs that use Census Bureau data — collected every 10 years — to determine funding levels for those programs in each state, including Medicaid, highway and transportation funding, federal student loans and Pell Grants, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, business and industry loans, Head Start, homeland security grants, Community Development Block Grants, home loans and housing assistance, crime victim assistance, senior meals and other assistance programs and more.
Ignore the reminders to complete your survey and successfully “hide” from the census and that’s roughly $2,200 for each member of a household that won’t be available to support those programs — programs that touch everyone — in Washington.
There’s also the matter of your representation in Congress. The census also determines the size of each state’s congressional delegation in the House of Representatives as 435 House members are divvied up around the country. After the 2010 census, Washington state added a House member and is now represented by 10 representatives. The state has seen modest growth in recent years, but isn’t expected to gain another House member after this census, although Oregon is expected to add one and California may lose one.
Beyond setting the size of each state’s delegation and its representation in the Electoral College, data from the census also helps direct the drawing of boundaries for congressional, legislative and local government districts. And it provides useful data to local governments and businesses as they develop plans to serve communities and customers.
Even with fair funding and government representation on the line, it can be a challenge for the Census Bureau to get an accurate count every 10 years, and recent developments haven’t made it any easier.
Start with a basic mistrust of “nosy government types” asking for the names, gender and ethnicity of household members, among the short list of about 10 questions asked. We’ve been advised — correctly in most cases — to be protective of our personal information, especially after a series of data breaches by retail businesses and even the credit bureaus that are supposed to protect that information, but the Census Bureau has taken steps to maintain a high level of data security to protect each respondent’s privacy. Beyond statistical data shared with other government agencies, no personal information — other than the names, ages and occupations seen in census rolls, which are only made public 72 years after each census — is released by the bureau.
The survey has been further complicated by the Trump administration’s failed attempt last year to include a citizenship question in this year’s count. Following concern that such a question could depress the response rate among some minority populations, a challenge to the proposal was considered by the U.S. Supreme Court, which rejected the administration’s justifications for including the question on census forms.
Had it been included, a recent Census Bureau report found, the question likely would have discouraged participation among a small percentage of Latino, Asian and non-English-speaking residents, particularly in Washington state and other Western states, National Public Radio reported last month. Even without the presence of the citizenship question, the controversy could still discourage some from answering the survey.
In response to those and other concerns and because of what’s at stake, state and local governments have already launched efforts to encourage people to respond and complete the surveys. The state Legislature allocated $15.5 million in its budget for outreach efforts, and Snohomish County has assembled a Complete Count Committee to educate communities about the census, encourage their participation and make sure everyone is counted. The committee has been working with local nonprofits, service organizations, churches and faith groups and others in those efforts, including a series of “Census 101” information workshops scheduled for this month and in February.
Another change to this year’s census: Most will be asked to complete it online; 95 percent of households will get an invitation asking them to complete the questionnaire by computer or smartphone. Others will receive a mail-in form or will be visited in person by a census taker. Invitations to respond will be sent by mail in mid-March, with up to four reminders sent through April. One advantage to the online form; it should allow for nearly real-time tracking of response rates in communities and could help direct efforts to encourage more outreach in specific areas as the count progresses.
The census form is estimated to take about 10 minutes to complete online. Ten minutes, every ten years, is a small investment of time that ensures that everyone in the state and your community gets a fair — and vital — share of tax dollars and representation.
Make it count
For more information on Census 2020, go to 2020census.gov/.