It may be strange, but I was excited to receive mail from the federal government this spring, and no, I’m not referring to a tax refund or a stimulus check. I was excited to receive my own invitation to complete my very first decennial Census! My colleagues and I use data from the United States Census Bureau frequently for our work at the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University, so I am familiar with the Census as a source of all types of demographic and socioeconomic data. But as I began researching further, I realized there was a lot I didn’t know about the Census.

A brief history of the Census

For some brief background, the Census is a count of everyone living in the United States. Thomas Jefferson organized the nation’s first census in 1790, and the tally has taken place every 10 years ever since per constitutional mandate. The Census is the foundation of nearly all demographic or social research in the U.S. due to the rigor with which it is conducted.

In addition to the decennial Census currently underway, the U.S. Census Bureau conducts a variety of surveys and data collection efforts on an annual or semi-annual basis (for example, the American Community Survey or the Current Population Survey).

Traditionally, “Census Day” occurs on April 1 (no joke!). This year’s count is the first that allows participants to complete the form online in addition to paper or phone options. While these options make it easier to participate for many U.S. residents, the current global pandemic has delayed efforts to complete in-person follow-up efforts, particularly for people who may be quarantining away from their traditional residents or for those who are traditionally hard to reach.

Pre-COVID, the final Census data were to be delivered to the president and Congress by the end of this year—December 2020. In light of the pandemic, the deadline had been pushed to April 2021, allowing for data collection and outreach to continue through the end of October 2020. However, on August 3, the Trump administration announced that the timeframe would be compressed to the end of September, allowing for the results to be delivered on the original December 2020 timeline.

Eliminating this extension reduces the amount of time that Census workers can conduct outreach to hard-to-count residents or nonresponsive households, which decreases the validity of the count, particularly in areas with higher populations of marginalized individuals. That being said, as of September 1, 84.1 percent of households had completed the Census—61.5 percent by web, phone, or mail; and 19.0 percent during follow-up visits from a Census worker. In comparison, the 2010 decennial Census had a final mail response rate of 74.0 percent. With outreach for data collection ending at the end of the month, only time will tell if this year’s Census response rate is consistent with previous counts.

The decennial Census is surprisingly short, asking only a few questions. Questions include the number of people living in the household; the sex, age, ethnicity, and race of each person; whether or not the house/apartment is owned (with or without a mortgage) or rented; if and how the people in the household are related; and a phone number in case follow-up clarification is needed. These questions do not capture a respondent’s citizenship or immigration status. However, questions regarding a person’s sex are presented within the gender binary.

What are Census data used for?

Other than being a source of data for nerds like me to play with, what are Census data used for? The short answer is everything! Population counts are used to apportion seats in the House of Representatives and define legislative districts. Information regarding demographics and minority groups can be used as a statistical baseline to determine if discrimination has occurred. Data can also show what community needs are and will be, and help to plan roads and schools. They also help the federal government distribute roughly $675 billion dollars to tribal, state, and local governments each year, for initiatives raging from education to public health to transportation to education to neighborhood improvements.

Why an accurate count is important

Why is it important to have an accurate count? We need government planning and resources to be allocated efficiently and effectively, so we also need to know where communities are growing and how their needs are changing. However, some groups are often under-counted or are hard to reach—for example people experiencing homelessness, returning citizens, residents with low English proficiency, low-income residents, elderly residents, and young children. Other groups who may be marginalized and/or distrustful of government organizations can also be hard to engage, though Census data cannot legally be shared with other government agencies nor used for any purposes other than statistical calculations.

Often, traditionally hard-to-count groups are wary of participating or are experiencing instability in their lives, so having targeted outreach efforts is especially important. For example, Baltimore City developed plans for significant outreach in community centers, public libraries, corner stores in Healthy Food Priority Areas (formerly known as food deserts), barber shops and salons, and with the MTA public transit system. The city also developed a social media campaign called the #BmoreCensusChallenge to encourage Census respondents to spread the word in their social circles.

Gaining an accurate count of residents is important, and ensuring that everyone is counted, particularly underrepresented groups, is vital to creating a more accurate and equitable society. Though the Census collection process has been hampered by COVID-19, it is still vital that participation is as complete as possible to ensure that policies and decision making are as accurate as they can be for all of our neighbors throughout the country.