The coronavirus pandemic presents good and bad news for the U.S. Census. The good news is that with many people staying at home, filling out the census questionnaire is easier than ever.
The bad news is that the Census Bureau is unable to hold live events to explain its process to hesitant respondents and to encourage broad participation. The bureau typically sends out census takers, who go door-to-door to collect information, from May to July. The coronavirus pandemic likely will change those plans.
So it is more important than ever that households in Maine, and across the country, participate in the census on their own.
It is easy to do. The Census Bureau sent mailers to every household between March 12 and 20. Each mailing has a unique code that is entered on the bureau’s website. There, you will answer brief questions about each member of your household.
If you did not receive a mailer or have misplaced it, you can still fill out the questionnaire online or by phone. Go to my2020census.gov or call 844-330-2020 to get started.
“The census plays a central role in America’s history and government. It’s important for you to be counted so you will count in that history,” Gordon Weil, a former Harpswell selectman who worked as a staffer for the U.S. Senate and the European Union, wrote in a recent BDN blog post.
He noted that the 1790 census was the first official recognition of Maine as an entity separate from Massachusetts. Back then, census districts, not states, were counted separately.
Now, census data, which is constitutionally mandated to be collected every 10 years, is used to determine many crucial things. For one, it determines the size and number of U.S. House districts in each state.
Election Data Services, a consulting firm that specializes in redistricting, predicts that 17 states will have changes in the size of their congressional delegation after House district maps are redrawn, a process that is supposed to start at the end of the year. Ten states, including California, Rhode Island and West Virginia are projected to lose seats. Seven states are expected to gain, with Texas adding three sets and Florida adding two.
Maine, for now, is expected to keep its two districts.
Census data is also used to distribute hundreds of billions of dollars worth of federal resources. That’s why a full and accurate count is so important. That money goes to numerous education, health, nutrition, housing and other federally supported programs, including Head Start, Section 8 housing, Medicaid, highway planning, school lunches, food stamps, special education and others.
States, tribes and local governments also use census counts for their planning and programs.
The Americans who are most reliant on these programs are also the most likely to skip filling out the census questionnaire. That’s why an in-person follow up takes place and why the coronavirus fallout as it relates to the census could harm the population most in need of government services.
“An accurate census count can help ensure that we have the necessary public health services to provide a safety net to those in need, whether that means properly funding community health clinics, ensuring child-care needs are met or devoting resources to emergency preparedness,” Christian Arana and Jacqueline Martinez Garce, of the Latino Community Foundation, wrote in a recent Los Angeles Times column.
So, while you’re staying home to flatten the coronavirus curve, fill out your census form. But, also be aware of census-related scams. The form with your code came in an envelope marked with a Census Bureau return address. The bureau does not send out emails or make phone calls regarding the census.
So as our country and the world continues to weather the impacts of the coronavirus, stay home, wash your hands often and be counted in the census.