Ophelia Noble was immediately suspicious when she got a letter from the government in the spring of 2010 asking about her family.
“I called my mom,” she said. “What is this? What does the government want from me? Why do they want to know who lives in my house?”
It was Noble’s first time as head of her own household, responsible for participating in the U.S. census, a comprehensive survey of everyone living in the country that occurs every 10 years. She didn’t understand why Uncle Sam needed personal details about her life.
This year, as the country gears up for the 2020 census, Noble’s approach is much different. In conjunction with the Southwest Washington Census Coalition, Noble is working to educate everyone in Clark County about why obtaining an accurate count of the region is crucial.
“The census is greater than any one individual,” Noble said. “It really is about our communities pulling together, because we will not have this opportunity for another 10 years.”
Starting this week, residents will receive mailed invitations to self-respond to the census online as the information-gathering effort begins in earnest.
The census questionnaire will include nine questions, with responders filling out one form for each person in the household.
The bureau is collecting information on:
• The number of people in each household.
• Whether their home is owned or rented.
• Their telephone numbers.
• Names of all residents.
• Races of all residents.
• Each resident’s relationship to the respondent.
• Everyone’s birthdate.
• Everyone’s gender.
• Everyone’s ethnicity.
Invitations to respond online will begin appearing in mailboxes starting March 12.
Starting April 8, paper questionnaires will be mailed to all but a few residents living in extremely rural areas. People can respond by filling out the survey and returning it by mail, or calling the toll-free number printed on the questionnaire and answering the questions by phone.
Residents shouldn’t be surprised to see repeated reminders appear in mailboxes in April.
“Households that do not immediately respond will receive several reminder mailings,” said Toby Nelson, Western media contact for the U.S. Census Bureau. “We really encourage people to self-respond.”
Starting May 1, anyone who didn’t self-respond will receive visits from enumerators, who will go door to door collecting the information in person. That process will continue throughout the summer, Nelson said.
A few select groups don’t need to worry about responding to the census. Those living in certain group housing — college students in on-campus dormitories, for example, or people living in assisted-living facilities, or soldiers living in military barracks — will be counted collectively by their housing provider.
People without homes will also be counted through a separate effort, in a process called Service-Based Enumeration. Enumerators will count people March 30-April 1 at shelters, soup kitchens, mobile food vans and target nonsheltered outdoor locations.
The 2010 census cost $13 billion. This time around, the federal government is budgeting $15.6 billion.
One major change is expected to save money: For the first time in a decennial census, all responders can submit their questionnaires electronically.
“In 2010, the only self-response option that we offered was mail-back,” Nelson said, adding that the online system has already been deployed to conduct the smaller-scale, annual American Community Survey.
“We’re very confident in our ability to safely and confidentially deploy an online response system.”
Some changes were also made to the questionnaire itself.
For example, foster parents will be able to check a box to designate any foster children who live in their house.
The 2020 census also reflects same-sex marriage legalization. Options to check “husband” or “wife” were replaced with options for opposite- or same-sex married husband/wife/spouse. Couples who aren’t married can select opposite- or same-sex partner when noting who lives in their house.
While this creates a method of collecting data on some LGBTQ people, it leaves out youth and single adults. The Census Bureau does not collect information on sexual orientation or gender identity. The question asking a person’s sex still offers male and female as the sole options.
The Census Bureau is also seeking more detail on race this year. People are asked to write in their specific ethnic origins in addition to checking a box indicating their race. For example, German is the most commonly reported ancestry in Clark County, according to American Community Survey data. So a person who is white and has German roots would check the white box and also write “German” underneath.
What’s at stake?
It would be hard to overstate just how impactful the decennial census is.
The U.S. census is the government’s most comprehensive information-gathering tool and is used to formulate how to disburse spending. In short, the results touch just about every aspect of public life — schools, roads, hospitals, housing, business, food and disaster response.
According to the Census Bureau, the results of the 2020 census will determine how an estimated $675 billion will be divided and allocated among the nation’s communities each year for the coming decade. The results also determine how to divvy up the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Michael Torres, community housing and development manager at Clark County Community Services, said that the data collected over the coming months will impact the funds available for need-based food voucher programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.
“It gives you the best picture that we have, of who we are in this place,” Torres said. “What resources are in this place and what should we prioritize?”
The results will also impact housing programs, Torres said, including Section 8 housing voucher distribution, Community Development Block Grants and HOME Investment Partnerships.
Direct need-based financial relief, like the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, relies in part on census information. In the case of a natural disaster, the Federal Emergency Management Agency uses census data to help coordinate its response.
“Resources are allocated by population,” said Hector Hinojosa, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens’ Southwest Washington chapter. “The only way to get that allocation is to get an accurate count.”
In 2016, the most recent available data, Washington state received $16.7 billion from 55 federal programs based on 2010 census results.
And as Southwest Washington residents saw in 2010, the census could impact their political representation.
That census showed that Washington’s growing population required a new congressional district. The Washington State Redistricting Commission formed an additional district — Washington’s 10th — in the area surrounding Olympia.
Washington’s 3rd Congressional District, which includes Clark County, saw a major shift to the right as a result, dropping Democratic-leaning areas of Thurston County and picking up more territory in Republican-leaning Klickitat County.
Though it’s too soon to say whether the outcome of the 2020 census could similarly change Washington’s representation in the Capitol, it’s probable that the state’s congressional district boundaries will again shift.
“If we count everybody, then we may gain another representative in this area depending on what that count is,” Hinojosa said.