TAMPA — With exactly a year to go until the decennial count of the nation's population, government officials across the country held rallies, press conferences and town halls on Monday urging residents to help their communities secure a bigger piece of the federal funding pie.
Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Les Miller followed suit, delivering an impassioned plea for all residents to participate in next year's U.S. Census count on April 1, 2020. The collected population data determines redistricting for state and local governments, the number of congressional seats available to each state and, perhaps most importantly, cements how and where and estimated $675 billion in federal funding will be spent over the next decade, Miller said.
But even a year out from Census Day, nationwide efforts to boost participation were delivered under a cloud of confusion created by the proposed addition of a citizenship question to next year's census questionnaire, asking respondents to divulge how many members of their household are legal U.S. Citizens. The controversial question has drawn scrutiny from Democratic lawmakers and immigrant rights groups, as well as lawsuits from some states who argue its inclusion will result in an under-count among immigrant-heavy states like Florida. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling on the citizenship question's inclusion by the end of June.
"It's a difficult question," Miller said Monday. "There are a lot of people that may not want to do it because of the mere fact that they feel they might be putting themselves in jeopardy, and that's unfortunate. But it's up to the courts to rule on that. Hopefully in the next couple of months we'll get the all clear, and people won't feel deterred to participate."
Census questionnaires are completely self reported, but leaving some questions unanswered could result in some respondents getting left out of the population count, said the U.S. Census Bureau's Central Florida Partnership Specialist Ana Curas. Federal law protects all personal information submitted on census questionnaires, she said.
"It only comes out as statistics," Curas said. "No agency is able to get personal information."
The upcoming census will be the first conducted primarily online, with forms in multiple languages, said Curas. Census questionnaires can also be submitted by phone or by mail, she said. Miller will lead those efforts as chairman of Hillsborough County's "Complete Count Committee" ‑— a volunteer group of government and community leaders working alongside census bureau personnel to ensure that every county resident completes their census questionnaire.
About 72 percent of Florida residents participated in the 2010 Census, a big enough turnout for the state to win two additional seats in Congress and two more Electoral College votes in the 2012 election, Miller said. Since then, the state's population has continued to climb at a rate of about 13.3 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, putting Florida on track to surpass New York as the third largest state in the country.
Hillsborough County has seen a steady stream of that growth, where the population continues to increase by an average 17,000 people each year, Miller said. Already, the county's estimated population is about 1.5 million people — surpassing the total populations of 10 U.S. States.
"That's a lot of people, and if this growth continues we need to make sure that we have the support we need to ensure that every person within Hillsborough County gets the services they need," Miller said. "There's not one person that we can afford to miss."
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