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A Comprehensive Guide to the 2020 Census by Chelsea Brooks

June 15, 2020

What is the Census?


For some, the answer to this question may seem simple - the Census is a short survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, a nonpartisan government agency, every 10 years. It is designed to count every person currently residing in the U.S., both citizens and non-citizens. For others, the answer is more complex; for many, the very idea of a survey conducted by the federal government that collects data about a person and their family raises concerns. Such suspicions are often rooted in misunderstanding, so that the importance of the Census and its resulting data are often overlooked.


Why Census Data Matters


  • Allocation of funds: More than $675 billion in federal funds were distributed to 132 programs in 2015 alone. (1) Census data determines where these funds go! Today, more than $800 billion is distributed annually. For example, in the state of California alone, $1,950 in federal funding is lost for every person not counted!


  • Key programs impacted by Census data: (2)
  • Medicaid
  • Head Start
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • Social Services Block Grants (SSBG)
  • State Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)
  • Block grants for community mental health services
  • 340B Drug Pricing Program
  • Title V Maternal and Child Health Block Grants
  • and more!


  • Community development: Census results show where communities need new schools, clinics, and roads, as well as where additional services are needed for families, the elderly, and children.


  • Business growth: Census data helps businesses grow and thrive by disclosing population and consumer trends to business owners.


  • Representation: Census data determines the number of seats for each state in the House of Representatives. States like Florida, North Carolina, Texas, Arizona, Colorado, Montana, and Oregon are each projected to gain a seat (3)--but only if everyone fills out the Census! Census data is also used to adjust/redraw congressional and state legislative lines based on population shifts.


Clearly, Census data is very impactful at the state, local, and individual level. For these reasons, it is important that everyone fills out the Census so that the data accurately reflects the needs of communities!


Who is counted in the Census?


Everyone residing in the United States, regardless of citizenship status, should be counted in the Census! However, only one adult member of each household needs to fill out the Census on behalf of everyone residing in their household on April 1, Census Day. 


Certain populations are undercounted more than others. These “Hard to Count” (HTC) populations include first-time Census takers, undocumented immigrants, non-English speakers, racial and ethnic minorities, low-income persons, and those with limited Internet access. Aside from lack of resources, misconceptions about the Census and lack of accurate information are two of the primary reasons these populations do not fill out the Census. 


Common Myths About the Census


  • The only way to complete the Census is by mail. This is the first time ever that the Census can be completed by mail, by phone, or online! So if you lost your Census form or never received one in the mail, have no fear; it’s not too late to fill the Census out online at http://www.My2020Census.gov! Responses recorded online and via phone can be completed in 13 different languages.


  • The last day to fill out the Census is Census Day, April 1. Wrong! You can fill out the Census until October 31. April 1 is only a reference day for Census takers to count everyone living in their home as of that day.


  • The Census contains a citizenship question. The Census form does NOT contain a citizenship question. Even questions about race (there are two) are only asked to help federal agencies monitor compliance with anti-discrimination provisions.


  • The Census isn’t confidential. Census data is completely confidential! The Census Bureau is bound by Title 13 of the U.S. Code, which states that private information cannot be released to anyone, including law enforcement agencies. (4)  The Census questionnaire does not collect your Social Security Number, credit card information, or anything on behalf of a political party. Answers do not impact eligibility for government benefits, including a potential stimulus package. (5)


Every person’s participation is invaluable in the 2020 Census. Even in Minnesota, the state with the highest rate of participation in the 2020 Census as of June 7th, only 70.4% of its population has been accounted for. (6)


Where can I fill out the Census form?


You can find the Census form online at http://www.My2020Census.gov. Census Takers will be going door to door from August 11-October 31 and will provide a Census form if your household has not filled one out already. You can make sure that a Census Taker is who they say they are by checking for a valid ID badge with a picture, a U.S. Department of Commerce watermark, and an expiration date. (7)


10 questions completed in 10 minutes or less could affect the next 10 years of your life! If you’d like more info about why you should fill out the Census, visit http://www.2020census.gov



  1. Marisa Hotchkiss & Jessica Phelan, “Introduction,” Uses of 2020 Census Bureau Data in Federal Funds Distribution (September 2017): 8, doi: https://www2.census.gov/programs-surveys/decennial/2020/program-management/working-papers/Uses-of-Census-Bureau-Data-in-Federal-Funds-Distribution.pdf 
  2. “Importance of the Data,” United States Census 2020, accessed June 8, 2020, https://2020census.gov/en/census-data.html
  3. Gregory Wallace, “Projection shows Florida and North Carolina among states that could gain congressional seats after Census,” CNN, December 31, 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/12/31/politics/census-2020-apportionment/index.html
  4. “Title 13 - Protection of Confidential Information,” United States Census Bureau, accessed June 9, 2020, https://www.census.gov/about/policies/privacy/data_stewardship/title_13_-_protection_of_confidential_information.html 
  5. “Fighting 2020 Census Rumors,” United States Census 2020, accessed June 8, 2020, https://2020census.gov/en/news-events/rumors.html 
  6. “Response Rates,” United States Census 2020, accessed June 8, 2020, https://2020census.gov/en/response-rates.html
  7. “Census Takers in Your Neighborhood,” United States Census 2020, accessed June 8, 2020, https://2020census.gov/en/census-takers.html 


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