By Emily Kressley | Illustration by Jubilee Hernandez

2020 has thrown the world for a loop and caused everyone to modify their behavior. Fortunately, the decennial census is still able to happen, though with some delays and extensions.

The census counts every citizen in the U.S. and five territories every 10 years. According to the United States Census Bureau, the first census occurred on July 1, 1790, and was completed in August of that year. At the time, the population of the country was 3,929,214 people, with the largest urban population located in New York City. In the 2010 census, New York City remained the largest urban center, but the overall population had soared to 308,745,538 people. To collect data then, people had to walk door to door; however, today, you can report your information by mail, online, or by phone. While this is certainly an easier way to gather information, the system only works if people actually participate.

Overall, Americans are very aware of the census, and 84% say they will definitely or probably participate in it. The age demographics are broken down into four groups: 18-29, 30-49, 50-64, and 65+. According to Pew Research, the young adult age group is the least likely of the four to fill out the census. Additionally, Black and Hispanic adults are less likely to participate and have historically been undercounted. Lower-income adults are considered a “hard to count” population, whereas those experiencing homelessness are counted manually by the census bureau. Generally, higher incomes and levels of education lead to higher response rates. There are no major discrepancies between political affiliations.

Aside from being a civic duty, the census is important because it helps communities plan for the future. Submitting data influences how billions of dollars of funding are allocated and provides your representation to the government. Specifically, data is used to secure funding for public services, schools, hospitals, and fire departments, as well as public, nonprofit, and commercial research. It can help determine new housing and business projects, how many seats your state has in the House of Representatives, and redistricting of political boundaries within states. The census form counts population size, age, sex, origin, race, and relationship to household.

This decade’s census was a prominent piece of news in July 2019 when President Trump introduced the idea of adding a citizenship question. This was struck down by opponents who noted it could discourage immigrants from responding. The government plans to publish citizenship information from its own records in 2021. Overall, 94% of adults agree that the census is very important for the nation; however, only 48% believe that filling out the form personally will have a beneficial effect on their community.

The longevity of the system is important, as the census has continued through times of internal and external crisis. Censuses can reflect shifts in cultural interests, defining moments for generations, growth in populations, and the nation’s values. Living through a defining historical moment now with COVID-19, it will be interesting to see what exactly the census reflects, and how responses may shape societal changes in the years to come. You can participate in the 2020 census here. Note that students who live in on-campus housing (even if they are currently staying at home) are already being counted by CC and do not have to fill the census out.

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