Later this month, the federal government will begin what The Associated Press has called its “largest peacetime operation.”
That is the 2020 Census.
While it may seem unimportant, the census can directly impact your community.
“The results are used to determine how much funding local communities receive for key public services and how many seats each state gets in Congress,” the United States Census Bureau’s website states. “State and local officials also use census counts to draw boundaries for congressional, state legislative and school districts.”
The decennial census, which is constitutionally mandated, began in 1790.
This year, the official counting begins Jan. 21 in a rural Alaskan community, though most individuals will receive an invitation to participate in the census in March.
By law, everyone living in the United States, Washington D.C. and the five U.S. territories are required to be counted in the census.
Residents can respond to the census online, by phone or by mail. About 95 percent of people will be contacted by mail to participate.
Questions on the census are basic demographic ones like the name and age of every person in the house, if the house is rented or owned and so on.
If a person does not respond, the census bureau will send multiple reminders before visiting that home by May.
The new population counts should be announced Dec. 31.
According to the George Washington University Institute of Public Policy, data from the census helped guide about 320 federal programs ranging from agriculture to education and over $880 billion in federal money in 2016.
Illinois received over $34 billion of that money from 55 federal spending programs guided by census data.
In Monroe County, that money can be seen in the form of the state’s income tax, use tax and motor fuel tax.
Those funds are spent on law enforcement, infrastructure improvements and other amenities, Columbia City Administrator Douglas Brimm said.
“Census data gives us an accurate population count, which then allows the city to receive their fair share of money from the state that had been collected in the form of state taxes,” Brimm explained. “That money is then distributed back to our community. If our residents don’t respond to the census, they won’t reap the benefits that could be available to them. We want to make sure Columbia residents are getting back their fair share of the taxes that they are paying every year.”
To underline the importance of the census, Brimm noted the city estimates it will receive $187.40 per resident in 2020, which is over $2 million.
Waterloo’s main funding guided by the census comes from those same funds, according to city budget officer Shawn Kennedy.
“From the municipal perspective, having an accurate count from the census is important as municipalities receive some pass-through funding based on population,” she said.
Since cities rely on those state monies, accurate census data is also crucial for budgeting purposes.
Federal funding at the city level mainly involves grants for road improvements, as census data helps define eligibility criteria, compute formulas to allocate funds, prioritize project applications and set interest rates for federal loan programs.
“There is the potential that the city could be awarded more points on an application due to its population density,” Brimm said. “This would likely pertain to road improvements. Our public schools also receive federal funding based on demographic data acquired from responses to the census. Examples of this funding would be for special education and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s school food program.”
Municipalities could also receive money from Illinois that it gets from census-guided programs.
But cities rarely get such direct funding.
“We don’t really have a project federal funds have specifically paid for,” Waterloo Director of Public Works Tim Birk said.
Brimm also pointed out that population data derived form the census determines how many representatives each state gets in Congress.
After the 2010 Census, Illinois lost a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Given all those reasons, it is unsurprising that municipalities develop campaigns to ensure an accurate counting.
In Columbia, the Complete Count Committee will use a program called “Count Me in Columbia” to educate residents about the census.
Waterloo will also have messaging about the census, though it is still deciding if that effort will be led by a committee or by city community relations coordinator Sarah Deutch.
Those campaigns might include information like that the census bureau and its workers are bound by law to protect answers to the census and keep them confidential.
That specific information cannot be shared with the public or other federal agencies for 72 years, though information as detailed as the neighborhood level can be released.
The campaign might also include information about applying for a temporary job with the census bureau, which can be done at 2020census.gov/en/jobs.
For more information on the census, visit 2020census.gov.