It comes once every ten years, so you could be forgiven for forgetting — or never knowing — how exactly the U.S. Census works. Here are the basics:
What is the census?
Every 10 years, the U.S. Census Bureau undergoes the Herculean task of counting every living person in the United States.
That means, if all goes well, census takers will count you, too. The census will ask for six pieces of information about each person for its count:
- Their age and date of birth.
- If they are of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin.
- Their race.
- Their relationship to other people in their household.
- Their sex.
- Whether their home is rented or owned by a resident.
(There will be a couple other questions on the form, including lines for one person’s name and phone number, that the organization doesn’t use for its published research.)
A potential seventh question asking whether people were citizens of the United States was hotly debated, with experts and the Census Bureau itself arguing it would dissuade undocumented immigrants and Hispanic people in general from answering. The U.S. Supreme Court said there wasn’t enough justification, and the question was dropped.
But the Census Bureau will receive information on individuals’ citizenship status from Department of Homeland Security records. The Census will also use the records to develop citizen population data, Federal Computer Week reported.
Every individual person’s answers are kept secret, but the information is added up and used in reports down to the census block level — at its smallest, the size of a city block.
When does it start?
Technically, the day of the census is April 1. In the government’s eyes, the count tallies everyone on that specific day.
But government officials have been preparing for the count for years. In a remote part of Alaska, counters will begin this month, before residents leave after the spring thaw. In Tampa Bay, you’ll start to see the count take place in March.
Residents will first get a form in the mail in mid-March. On that mailer, most residents will get instructions to go online and fill out the questionnaire themselves. Others, in areas with fewer regular internet users, will get a full paper questionnaire in their first mailer instead.
Any household that hasn’t responded online will receive the paper questionnaire by mid-April.
By mid-May, census takers will knock on the doors of households that still haven’t responded. That’s when you might see them in your neighborhood.
How is Tampa Bay counted, in particular?
Census officials have already studied the makeups of every neighborhood in the country and guessed how likely they are to respond.
In Tampa Bay, areas in downtown and East Tampa as well as parts of Brandon and south St. Petersburg had particularly low response rates a decade ago. In rural eastern Hillsborough and Hernando, the Census expects fewer online responses.
Census officials know counting those areas will require extra effort this time.
Across the board, it’s an effort in building trust, said Brandon Wagner, who works for Hillsborough County as a liaison to the Census Bureau. Wagner and Hillsborough’s Complete Count Committee are working to convince residents the effort is safe.
“This information has a specific purpose. It’s only used by the Census Bureau for this manner. And that it’s not intended to play gotcha with anybody.
“It’s one thing for me or someone from Washington to come tell you that,” Wagner said. “It’s another to hear it from someone in your own community.”
Local government officials and residents invite speakers into schools and send information to, for example, Spanish-language radio and television stations.
Why does it matter?
The U.S. House of Representatives uses the decennial census for reapportionment and redistricting, a process that determines how many representatives each state gets and how they’re distributed throughout the state.
Census officials and partners also emphasize the money on the line. Lots of federal programs use census data to decide which areas are eligible for grants and which populations should get priority for funding.
According to a George Washington University study, Florida received more than $44 billion in 2016 from federal programs that used data collected in the 2010 Census.
Medicaid, Medicare, federal student loans, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) and money for highway planning and construction all rely on the census count. The federal government distributed more than $1 billion to Florida through each program.
In Pinellas, the Central Pinellas Chamber is part of the business sub-committee of Pinellas’ Complete Count Committee.
“The census dictates a lot of our funding for programs that everyone needs and loves,” said Kelvin Mack, community outreach and events director for the chamber.
Businesses, Mack said, care about retaining skilled and educated workers. So grants tied to transportation, which could help make Pinellas more liveable and attractive, and programs like Head Start and affordable housing, which can help provide upward mobility for young people, are in the Chamber’s interest, he said.
In posters and fliers that businesses are receiving, the county is highlighting programs like affordable housing and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.
Census takers and researchers expect higher risks of an undercount among people of color.
Black and Hispanic people in Florida might be undercounted by about 3 percent, researchers at the Urban Institute project. And Florida’s population has a greater share of black and Hispanic residents than the country overall, compounding that risk.
Wagner said it’s important to personalize the importance of the count.
“You’ve got to convince folks that their participation has an impact on those numbers,” he said.
“That’s an extra block of money that comes in for housing, or healthcare... If you participate it helps. If you don’t, it could be hurtful."