Down for the Count: Census is mandated by the U.S. Constitution – here’s why it matters

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Census-takers will begin going door-to-door on August 11, 2020. Photo credit: U.S. Census Bureau Public Information Office.

MANCHESTER, NH — Every decade the government is required to count every person living in the United States. This information is used to determine how federal funds are distributed and how state and federal legislative representatives are allocated. The goal of this year’s 2020 Census is to count everyone, once, and in the right place. 

Over the past several months residents have received multiple mailings from the U.S. Census Bureau. It began with postcards inviting them to fill out their census survey online or by phone. In April paper questionnaires were mailed to households that had not yet responded. 

The questionnaire takes about 5-10 minutes to complete. It asks people to count the residents in their household and provide basic information about age, gender, and race.  

This year people are allowed to respond online or by calling the toll-free number. Even though paper questionnaires have been sent, the online and phone options are still available. There is a link under the ID number that allows respondents to enter their address if their Census ID number is not at hand.

Example Above: If your Census ID number is not at hand, use the link below the blue login box on the website.

The more people who “self-respond” – respond online, by mail, or by phone – the fewer census-takers will have to go door-to-door in the community. 

The challenges of counting everyone

Manchester has significant numbers of people who are likely to be undercounted. People in low-income neighborhoods, immigrants, children under age 5, homeless persons, and people living in remote areas are all considered hard to count populations. 

The Census Bureau has a number of strategies to count the easily missed. Their website has videos and guides in 59 languages. Twelve languages are available on the toll-free phone line. They have a special outreach program for counting homeless populations and encourage community leaders to establish Complete Count Committees in places where there is a significant hard-to-count population.  

Bill Maddocks, a consultant to the New Hampshire Funders Forum, works with Complete Count Committees across the state.  The stakes are high, because federal funding for Community Development Block Grants, healthcare, schools, and transportation will all be based on the census count. Maddocks estimates that for each person we miss, the state will lose about $37,000 over the next decade for each uncounted person.

Granite United Way’s Complete Count consultant, Susan Howland, estimates that during the 2010 census, 1-in-3 people may have been missed in Manchester’s center city neighborhoods. Manchester’s committee includes leaders from the Latino, African, and Nepali communities. They have been working since February to get the word out and offer support to people in the city who may not be aware of the importance of the census. 

During the 2010 Census Manchester’s self-response rate was 66 percent. Howland would like to see significant increases in every census tract in the city. As of Monday, May 4, Manchester’s self-response rate was 59.3 percent. Check on the city’s progress here. 

Before COVID-19, the committee was attending church services and community events, and holding in-person meetings to bolster the city’s response. But now, since the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order prevents people from going door to door to talk about the census, or gathering people together to fill out the forms, the committee has been relying on social media, texting apps, and flyers sent home through food distribution networks. 

Chris Potter, Faith Community Organizer with Granite State Organizing Project, has been focusing on the Latino Community. He noted that the campaign has already had an impact. “On Thursday (April 23) we sent out text messages to 1400 people and saw the response rate in Manchester jump from 52 percent to 55 percent.” Potter said. He added that people are more likely to respond when they are contacted by people they know and trust. 

Your information is safe

Trust can be a significant barrier for some who fear that the information gathered will be used by the government against them. The Trump Administration attempted to add a citizenship question on the questionnaire. The courts ruled against it because of the potential to hinder getting an accurate count of the population.

When asked about the security of the data collected, Jeff Behler, NY Regional Director for the US Census Bureau, referred to Title 13, a federal law that prohibits anyone from sharing data at the individual or household level with any person or any other agency, including ICE, Homeland Security, or law enforcement. 

He pointed out that the Census Bureau has never shared this information, even after 9/11. “Every employee of the Census Bureau takes an oath, and it is for life.”  The penalty for violating the oath is a fine of up to $250,000 and up to 5 years in prison.

The census data itself is encrypted when it is submitted and stored behind a firewall on a dedicated computer system that is not connected to the cloud or any other agency. The Census Bureau further protects the information by limiting internal access to the data. “Even as a Regional Director I have no access, because I have no need to know the data at the individual or household level.” Behler said

Individual census data is only released after 72 years. In 2022 census data will be released from the 1950 census, to be used for genealogical and other research. 

COVID-19 delays the count

Director Behler has been with the US Census Bureau since 1997. This will be his third census, but his first during a pandemic. For two years the Census Bureau had been planning for this year’s count. They had just started their rural outreach program on March 15, hand-delivering census materials to homes of individuals who use Post Office boxes. Two days later, the COVID-19 outbreak shut everything down and they had to rethink their plans.

The Census Bureau is asking Congress to approve a 120-day deadline extension. Data collection will be extended to October 31, 2020. Census-takers who were scheduled to start going door-to-door in mid-May will now begin on August 11. The deadline for delivering the population counts to the President will be moved from December 31, 2020, to April 30, 2021, and the deadline for delivering results to the states for redistricting will be moved from March 31, 2021, to July 31, 2021. 

The Census Bureau’s introduction of online and phone response methods was luckily timed to address the COVID-19 crisis. Behler is pleased with the results.

They projected that 60.5 percent of people would have responded by mid-May, when they originally planned to start sending people into the field. As of May 4, 56.3 percent of households across the country had responded. “The more people who self-report, the fewer people we’ll need to send out into the field to finish the count.” Behler said 

The COVID-19 pandemic has also disrupted the census by moving people around. Normally, college students would be on campus on April 1 and would be counted in their college towns, but this year they were sent home to their families in mid-March. Colleges provide information for students living on campus, but off-campus students fill out their own census forms.  Behler urges college students who lived off-campus to go online and fill out the questionnaire using their college address and include all their roommates. “Don’t worry about duplicate entries, we have good ways to deal with that,” he said.

Other people may be sheltering-in-place away from their home or unable to return from winter vacation homes. They should also complete the census based on their normal residence or where they spend more than six months of the year. If they don’t have their Census ID number from the Census mailers, they can go online or use the toll-free number, using their regular home address to access the questionnaire. 

The Census Bureau has a system in place for counting homeless people in shelters, transitional housing, and on the streets, but people who are “couch surfing” may be missed. If someone was staying in another person’s home on April 1 the householder should include them in the census response.

Granite State Organizing Project’s Chis Potter is a member of Manchester Complete Count Committee. Courtesy Photo

Redistricting

The census is mandated by the United States Constitution in order to allocate the members of the U.S. House of Representatives equally by population. 

Ken Gallager is the Principal Planner of the New Hampshire State Data Center in the NH Office of Strategic Initiatives. He maintains the State’s census data and has also been working with communities around the state on gathering the data for the 2020 Census.

Gallager predicts that New Hampshire’s center of population will continue to move to the Southeast.  New Hampshire has two Congressional Districts which may see slight changes when redistricting occurs. New Hampshire House, Senate, and Executive Council districts will also be redistricted using the 2020 Census data.

Last year the New Hampshire House and Senate passed a bill to establish an independent redistricting commission, which Governor Sununu vetoed. Another similar bill was making its way through the legislature when the coronavirus pandemic suspended their activities.

Unless changes are made, the House and the Senate will each be responsible for drawing their new districts, respectively.  According to Gallager each legislative body forms its own redistricting committee, which normally would receive the Census data in March of the year ending in “1,” work through the rest of the year and submit legislation in the “2” year defining the new districts. So the committees’ work time would be cut by as much as four months with the delay in release of the 2020 Census data.

Depending on the results of the census, Manchester could gain or lose state representatives. 

In 2012 the City of Manchester unsuccessfully sued the state over the last redistricting plan. Prior plans had three Representatives for each ward. In the 2012 plan, each ward was given two representatives, and four multi-ward floterial districts were established, including one that included the Town of Litchfield. Manchester argued that the two communities were so different that neither would be appropriately served under this scenario. 

According to state law the redistricting must be finished by the time the filing period for state offices begins in June of 2022. Manchester’s state legislative districts are also city wards and changes to them must be approved by city voters, which should happen on Election Day in 2021.

If you have not filled out your census questionnaire yet, you can do it here.