The 2020 U.S. Census is underway. The dicennial population count affects political power on a local, federal and state level, and it guides billions of dollars of federal spending.
Here's what you need to know about the census, why it matters in New Hampshire, and how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting it.
What is the U.S. Census?
The census counts every person living in the United States, regardless of citizenship or immigration status. The U.S. Census Bureau conducts the count every 10 years, as required by the U.S. Constitution.
Federal law requires every household to fill out the survey. One person can fill it out for their whole household, and most fill it out online at my2020census.gov.
The bureau considers April 1 the official Census Day, but the survey process for most of the country lasts from March until mid-summer. As of April 4, most households in the country had received multiple mailers directing them to fill out the census. In New Hampshire, 42 percent had responded so far.
Why does the census matter?
The census population count guides major decisions about federal spending and political power for the next ten years.
Experts estimate that the federal government sends over $1.5 trillion each year to states, municipalities, and nonprofits based on those areas’ population counts. In New Hampshire, that number is estimated at $6.5 billion annually, most of which goes to Medicare and Medicaid. The rest goes to a slew of initiatives for roads, hospitals, community development, schools, and low-income residents.
Data from the 2020 Census will also guide the process of redistricting and reapportionment of political power. Some states may lose or gain a representative (or more) to the U.S. House of Representatives, based on the new population count. This won’t happen in New Hampshire, but local municipalities may see changes in the number of state reps they send to Concord.
The census also reveals demographic changes that illuminate a state and region’s shifting identity. In New Hampshire, data gathered since the 2010 census suggest that the percentage of people of color living in the state could soon reach 10 percent. If counted accurately, certain census tracts in cities like Manchester and Nashua will have much higher percentages of people of color.
What does the census ask?
The census asks for the number of people living or staying in a household as of April 1, as well as their age, date of birth, sex, race and national origin, and home ownership status (renter or owner). It also asks for a phone number for a person in the household.
If you or someone in your household lives in multiple places throughout the year, the address where they spend most of the year is considered their primary residence for census purposes. College students who normally reside in a dormitory should be marked as usually living elsewhere, even if they have temporarily left campus due to coronavirus closures. This helps avoid counting them twice: once where they go to school and again in their hometown. Anyone staying with you on April 1, 2020 who has no fixed living situation should be counted as a member of your household.
For the first time, this year’s survey gives couples living together the option of identifying as “same-sex” or “opposite-sex.”
It also allows you to write in a racial or ethnic identity (i.e. Irish, Haitian, Iraqi) if you identify as non-Hispanic and either white and/or black. This falls short of the inclusion some advocates had hoped for, but it will likely yield a more nuanced portrait of racial identity and diversity, particularly in areas with a high concentration of families of African, Caribbean, and Middle Eastern origins.
What does the census not ask?
The census does not ask for your Social Security number or bank account or credit card number.
The census is fertile grounds for scammers. Watch out for phishing emails or texts that direct you to websites claiming to be an official census page with a URL that does not end in .gov.
If you suspect fraud, you can contact the Census Bureau at 844-330-2020.
The census does not ask about citizenship status. The Trump administration had hoped to do this, but federal courts blocked this permanently for the 2020 census. However, the bureau does plan to use records from other government agencies to compile citizenship data by 2021.
How do I get counted, and how will the Census Bureau get in touch with me?
The Census Bureau has different methods of contact, depending on where you live and your region’s access to internet and postal mail. But in light of orders to limit person-to-person contact during the coronavirus pandemic, the bureau is redoubling its efforts to get people to fill out the survey online at my2020census.gov.
Most households have received multiple mailers with a code to fill out the census online. If you lost the code, you can still fill it out online.
Starting this week, those households that have not yet responded will receive an optional paper version of the survey to fill out.
In some parts of rural New Hampshire, the Census Bureau uses an outreach strategy called “Update Leave.” This is true for large swathes of Coos, Carroll, and Grafton counties. (Check out this census map to see if you live in one of those areas, highlighted in yellow.)
Typically in these areas, census workers drop off a paper survey and ask residents a series of questions. With field operations suspended due to the pandemic, most of these areas have not yet had in-person contact from the Census Bureau. The bureau says these households should expect contact in the coming months via phone or in-person.
For households that have not responded by May, the bureau has hired thousands of workers in New Hampshire to go door-to-door and conduct “non-response” follow-up; this timeline may be pushed into the summer or fall, depending on the pandemic.
Residential institutions such as prisons, colleges/universities and nursing homes report on their residents directly to the Census Bureau, though the bureau is still working with colleges and universities to figure out how to do this during campus closure. Parents whose children usually live on campus should report their children as normally living at college when they fill out the census. College students who were living off campus should be counted at that residence, even if they have gone to their parents’ house to finish the semester.
For a guide on who to count in your household, click here.
Who is at risk of not getting counted in New Hampshire?
Some communities are designated as “hard-to-count” (HTC). These include areas with a high number of renters, low-income people, homeless people, rural residents, young children, people with disabilities and college students. Some New Hampshire communities with high HTC populations are Manchester, Nashua, Durham, and Laconia.
HTC areas also include those with immigrants and resettled refugees, many of whom are especially wary, given ongoing concerns that the Trump Administration will use census data to target undocumented residents.
The Census Bureau has pushed out multilingual materials and ads to reach some of these populations. It also has a phone version of the survey available in 12 languages other than English, for people unable to complete the census online or on paper.
Many community groups had planned to conduct in-person outreach to help HTC households complete the census, but they are now having to organize virtually, sending out reminders and instructions via Instagram, Facebook and other social media platforms.
What if I don't participate in the census?
You can face a fine for not completing the census survey or for giving false responses. But this law has been enforced rarely in the past.
The U.S. government has data from other agencies to cross-check and in some cases count residents who did not themselves fill out a survey.
But the best way to ensure your household is counted is to fill out the survey.