House-shaped clock in off-white with a brown roof, 2020.
history pragmatic historian time

Do Your Civic Duty – Fill Out the 2020 Census

U.S. Census 2020 form, letter, and envelope.
U.S. Census 2020 form, letter, and envelope.

In July 2019, which feels so veeeeery long ago now, I discussed the importance of the census, how getting an accurate count of everyone who lives in the United States is important for the distribution of government funding, figuring out how many representatives states have in Congress, and for future historians wanting data about who was living where and with whom.

Guess what? It’s census time RIGHT NOW!

April 1, 2020 is Census Day. It is when your household’s response to the census is due.

You should have gotten a couple of census mailings in your mailbox by this time. In my household, we received the paper census form first. This was followed by a letter that included a Census ID number in order to fill out the census online.

This is the first year the census can be filled out online and, having done it this way, I can tell you that it’s pretty easy.

Having the paper form on hand helps you to anticipate which questions will be asked online.

2020 Census Questions

As a historian who has looked through data from past censuses, I can tell you that each census has a slightly different flavor in terms of what questions are asked. For the 2020 census, there are a couple of notable differences from past censuses. The 2020 census allows for people to identify as multiple races, with a follow-up question for the origin. So, for example, under American Indian or Alaska Native, you can list the enrolled or principal tribes you identify with.

There is a separate question for identifying Hispanic origins because, as the census points out, “Hispanic origins are not races.”

The other change of the 2020 census in comparison to previous censuses is the ability to identify more accurately how each person in the household is related to “Person 1,” who pays the rent or owns the residence.

Through this question, people can be identified as a same-sex or opposite sex spouse or unmarried partner. Or, there are a number of selections for other types of relatives (biological son/daughter, adopted son/daughter, stepson/stepdaughter, foster child, father/mother, grandchild, brother/sister, in law). In addition, people can be identified as a roommate/housemate or other non-relative.

The 2020 census does a much better job of recognizing these complex relationships than past censuses have.

There’s one thing I would change about this census, though. I would alter the question, “What is this person’s sex?” by swapping the word “gender” for “sex” and I would allow for people to identify as transgender, non-binary, or whichever gender term they choose, rather than providing only “male” and “female” as choices. Perhaps this will happen for the 2030 census.

2020 Census and COVID-19

In any normal census year, it can be difficult to get an accurate count of everyone living in the country. It has proven challenging to count people who are homeless, renters, people of color, Native Americans, children under 5, and immigrants.(You don’t have to be a citizen to be counted and there is NO citizenship question on the 2020 census.)

But 2020 is not a normal census year because the COVID-19 pandemic is shutting down the United States right as collection efforts are getting underway. When people don’t fill out or turn in their census forms, whether paper or online, census workers are sent to their residences to gather the data. Because of the pandemic, there will be a delay in census workers being sent out. (At this point, the delay will be until April, but the situation could change quickly given the pandemic.)

For the safety of census door-knockers, it behooves all of us to turn in the census form or respond to the census online by April 1. If you’re hunkered down in your home in order to #FlattenTheCurve on COVID-19, surely you can find the 10-15 minutes it’ll take you to fill out the census.

If alleviating a little boredom and preventing census workers from coming into contact with COVID-19 isn’t enough motivation to fill out your census (by god, that latter one should be motivation enough), consider completing the census as your civic duty.

Like voting, the census has a direct impact on elections. It determines the number of Electoral College votes a state gets for the next decade. The next decade!

Being counted in the census matters.

Be counted.