February 5, 2020

Census History, Practicalities, and Importance

2020 Census – We ALL Count!

Every 10 years, every household in America is surveyed on demographics that will determine how billions of Federal funds are distributed, the number of seats we have in Congress, where critical infrastructure is provided and much more.

This year, YWCA Spokane is joining national efforts through YWCA USA and local efforts through the Spokane Complete Count Committee to make the census as accessible as possible to the populations we serve.


What Is The Census?

Like many folks we’ve chatted with recently at YWCA Spokane, you might be wondering: what exactly is the census, and why should we care about it?

We are mandated by the constitution to take a full count of everyone residing in our country once every decade. The first national census was conducted in 1790 under Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, and at the time it only asked for names of heads of household.

Adjustments to the census have always been part of the process–the questions that were asked in early versions were often changed by the next census in order to keep up with the dynamic changes of a developing nation. Sometimes changes are still made to the questionnaire or how it is distributed in order to meet new budgets or population demands.

Census Day, April 1st

While Census Day is officially April 1st, you will start seeing reminders and census awareness campaigns much earlier in order to ensure as many people are aware of this important day.

The census questionnaire asks how many people reside in a home and some basic demographic information about those people, like age, race, and relationship to one another.

Strictly Confidential

Census data is strictly protected under federal law–Title 13 of the U.S. Code dictates that it can only be used for statistical purposes. Even law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, CIA, or ICE, cannot be granted access to identifying information gathered from the census. In 2010, the Justice Department ruled that even the Patriot Act cannot override the confidentiality of census responses. The census will not be asking for information about immigration status, and a person’s documentation status will not stop them from being able to participate.

What Information Will Be Available?

Because of the protections listed above, data from the census can only be presented in aggregate. For example, if we looked at census data, we would not be able to see that Mary Sue lives at 123 W Alphabet St with her husband John and three children Lucy, Edmund, and Susan. We would only be able to look at data groupings with individual data removed, such as how many families with children live in that area of town, what the average income levels are, or how many people of a certain ethnicity live in Spokane. Aggregate data like this can be incredibly helpful for nonprofit agencies like ours, and have many other purposes, too!

How Census Data Will Be Gathered

Perhaps the most significant change for the 2020 census will be the methods being used to gather the data. In past years, most households received paper copies of the census questionnaire that they could fill in and mail back. If a household did not respond to the mailer, a census taker may have stopped by to gather the data in-person. Participants were also able to respond by phone. While all of those options will technically still be available, and some areas will solely use the older methods, the biggest push will be towards a new digital format. 

Census In The Digital Age

Instead of a paper copy of the census questionnaire, a new type of mailer will be sent out. This time it will include information about a website and an individualized code. Participants will need to go online, enter the code, and record their household data in the digital form.

This method has potential benefits, such as taking advantage of current technology to cut down on costs. But it also has drawbacks, including making some hard-to-count populations even harder to count.

Challenges With Census Data Collection

Some of the populations that have historically slipped through the cracks in the census include children under five, people who are homeless or who do not live in traditional housing, immigrants, people who are low-income, non-English speakers, racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ persons, and rural communities.

Primarily focusing on an online version will make it easier for some people, such as non-English speakers, who will be able to choose from 13 different languages as opposed to the two languages available in the paper format. But for others, such as those who may not have consistent access to the internet or are not as comfortable using technology, this year’s census may prove more challenging.

Why Does the Census Matter so Much?

Now that we’ve covered the basics of how the census works, you might be wondering why we go to all this trouble in the first place. There are many ways that census data affects our daily lives. 

If you’ve ever been affected by federally funded programs, you’ve been affected by census data. After the 2010 Census, over $16 billion dollars were allocated to Washington state programs. This funding went toward vital programs like Medicaid, federal student loans, SNAP, Medicare, highway planning and construction, Federal Pell Grants, and Section 8, just to name a few. The allocation of federal funds is guided by census data, and the more accurate our data is, the better fit the funding will be. Many of our YWCA clients and programs depend on this federal funding.

If you have children, they are more than likely affected by census data. Those funding dollars have a huge impact on the kids of our community, and children under five are a historically hard-to-count population. Chances are that you or someone you know have utilized the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), the National School Lunch Program or School Breakfast Program, Special Education grants, Head Start, or WIC–all programs whose amount of funding is based on census data. The same can be said about adoption assistance, foster care, and child care programs. It’s incredibly important that we get an accurate count of everyone, including our kiddos. 

If you’ve ever been affected by state and local politics, you’ve been affected by census data. Some of the key moving parts of our political system are determined this way! State legislative districts and congressional districts can both be changed based on new information gathered from the census. In each state, the governor and legislature identify non-partisan liaisons that can submit district plans to the Census Bureau through a process called the Redistricting Data Program.

Additionally, the number of congressional seats a state has can be changed this way, through a process called congressional apportionment. Texas and Florida are projected to gain seats from the upcoming census, while New York and Alabama are projected to lose seats. This side effect of the census has a huge impact, not only on our state and local governments but also on the number of votes a state is given in the electoral college. 

Everyone Counts!

While statistics like these are important, some people also choose to see the census as valuable in a philosophical way–the literal idea that everyone counts. The census has been through a lot of changes over the years in order to accommodate a diverse and ever-growing populace. For the first time, the 2020 census will be including options for same-sex couples on the relationship question. On the questions about race, a participant can write in their identity in whatever way best fits for them. The online and phone versions of the census questionnaire will be available in 13 languages.

Attempts to include a question about citizenship on the 2020 census have been struck down by federal courts. And while there are many steps forward we still need to take, such as accounting for diversity in gender identity (the questionnaire unfortunately still only gives the options of “male” and “female”), the changes we have made have paved the way for future activism that we hope continues to grow. 

Those who have fought for these changes believed that being counted was important and powerful. They see the census as an opportunity to be seen and heard by our governing bodies, and to ensure that valuable resources reach the people who need them. We hope to join them by making the census as accessible as we can to those we serve.


YWCA Spokane’s Action Plan For Engagement In The 2020 Census

Check out our other Census 2020 blog post that dives into our local action plan focused on engagement efforts in support of the clients we serve here at YWCA Spokane, thanks to a grant received through the Innovia Foundation.

2020 Census Action Plan


More Information About the 2020 Census

For more information about the census, you can visit the following: Spokane County Complete Count Committee, Y Women Count, National LGBTQ Task Force’s Queer the CensusNational Network for Immigrant and Refugee RightsNational Coalition for Literacy’s Census 2020 Resources

By: Mia Morton

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