Ever wonder how resources were allocated in your community? Or maybe why there are not enough hospital beds in the region where you reside? The census plays a big role in how state and local governments make decisions and how the federal government allocates funds. There are billions of dollars in federal funding available for communities at stake.

The census occurs every 10 years on April 1. It is an important reference date for counting people based on where they are living or usually residing as of that day. At this time, people living in the U.S. & U.S. territories have the opportunity to help inform and improve on the decisions being made by federal, state, and local governments about their communities.

To help with the outreach to local communities, the Census Bureau adopted the tagline “Shape Your Future. Start Here.” 

“The 2020 platform arose from that research, and has been rigorously tested to ensure that our campaign effectively communicates that when the public responds to the 2020 census, they will know they are helping to shape the future of their community for the next 10 years.” said Census Bureau Director Steve Dillingham in a press release.

Census data is used in several different areas, including funding and resource allocation to congressional representation. In addition to funding, local and state governments, as well as nonprofit organizations, use census data to inform programming and service area needs.  

What is the census?

The decennial census is a count of all of the people in all fifty states and the five U.S. territories—American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands—regardless of citizenship or immigration status. Despite attempts by the Trump administration, citizenship status is not a question asked on the 2020 census.

It is taken once every decade, relying on each individual household to respond. Only one person per household has to fill out the census. Initial invitations for completing the census, as well as follow-up notices, are sent out by mail. Although participation is required by law, undercounting is still an issue for many groups. Ordinarily, “non-responsive” households receive a visit from a census worker in late spring to help have a more accurate community count, but with the current COVID-19 pandemic, census workers will pursue alternate means of gathering information. Nonprofit organizations also work to ensure accurate community counts to make sure that funding allocations and resource opportunities are more equitably distributed.

The overall national self response rate was estimated at 36.2% as of March 30. The internet response rate is 31.8% for the same period. A response rate map has been set up to track how many people have completed the census by state.

Have you filled out your census yet? You should have received an invitation in the mail to complete it online. Just use the 12 digit code on the invitation letter and login here. Don’t have the invitation letter? No worries; you can still fill out your census.

What’s new with the 2020 census?

This is the first time the census is available online. The paper form is still an option for those who might not trust an online submission. People can also complete the census by phone. There are guides for each type of submission available online.

While it has changed over time, race has been recorded in every census taken since 1790. According to Pew Research Center, people did not select their own race until 1960. But the 2020 census is the first time the racial categories of “Black” and “white” will provide space for people to fill in their place of origin. This option was already present for other racial categories.

The word “negro” will not appear on the 2020 census. Prior versions of the census listed the word alongside “Black and African American.” People are permitted to check more than one box for race.

The 2020 census will be the first time people can indicate if they have a same-sex spouses or partner. This reflects a noted change. Previously, responses about a same-sex partner were coded as “unmarried partner.” The census does not ask questions about gender or sexual orientation. The question on sex remains unchanged, leaving it up to the person completing the form to select either male or female.

What is the census used for?

So we know that the census is a count of the people living in communities across the U.S. But what exactly is it used for?  

Census data has influenced future planning as well as allocating funding and resources on local, state, and federal levels. It is also used in figuring out everything from how and where to build necessary facilities such as schools, hospitals, homes, and supermarkets.

During a March 20 press conference on the Census Bureau’s response to COVID-19, Albert E. Fontenot Jr., the associate director for decennial programs at the U.S. Census Bureau, explained how important the census is to responding to the needs of communities particularly in moments of crisis.

“The current situation underscores the need for census data. Census results are used to inform planning and funding for hospitals and health clinics and emergency preparedness, even school lunch programs,” Fontenot said.

Although not specified in the U.S. Constitution, census data is also used for redistricting, the redrawing of legislative districts. How the census is used for redrawing districts differs across the states. In some states, state legislative districts can be redrawn and other points aside from the decennial census.

Various concerns have been raised about the way maps are drawn. There are efforts nationwide to reform redistricting processes. In 2018, Michigan voters passed Proposal 2, a ballot initiative creating an independent citizens redistricting commission to oversee redistricting instead of the state legislature.

How has the census been impacted by COVID-19?

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Census Bureau has halted conducting field work. Responding to a question about the Census Bureau’s field work, Fontenot said they would be stopping field work for the immediate future. “Where feasible, census field workers will call survey participants and seek to collect the necessary information over the phone.”

Tim Olson, associate director for field operations at the Census Bureau, provided a revised field schedule for non-response follow-up during the March 20 teleconference. “Non-response field operations will have a delayed start for college areas. We will now begin no earlier than May 13. And for the majority of the nation, this operation will begin May 28,” he said.

Olson continued on to say the completion date for the non-response field operation has been extended from July 31 to Aug. 14. The deadline to self respond to the 2020 census was also extended from July 31 to Aug. 14.

A population count is due to the president and Congress by Dec. 31. Thus far, this date has not been changed. Read more about the full schedule of operational adjustments here.

For Fontenot, the COVID-19 crisis underscored the importance of completing the census. “Even though many things may seem uncertain at the moment, one thing isn’t, the 2020 census this year, it’s important to our nation that everyone responds.”

Anoa Changa is a journalist and organizer focused on innovating electoral justice coverage. Follow her on Twitter at @thewaywithanoa.