Mark Your Calendars: The 2020 Census Means Everything

Ben Brown, NCLM Communications and Multimedia Strategist

New year, new you, new desk calendar loaded with trivial “holidays” you didn’t know existed, like Penguin Awareness Day (Jan. 20), Stuffed Mushroom Day (Feb. 4) and Bunsen Burner Day (March 31). Even with the help of a calendar, it’s difficult to keep up with, particularly on days doublebooked with observances. June 26, for instance. It’s simultaneously Take Your Dog to Work Day and Chocolate Pudding Day — a logistical nightmare if ever this writer has heard one. (Veterinarians says dogs and chocolate shouldn’t mix.)

And don’t forget this doubledecker date: April 1 is both Fun At Work Day and Census Day. While the former sounds a tad merrier, the latter, Census Day, marks one of the most important group efforts your town will experience all decade.

Prior issues of Southern City have combed through the basics and implications of the Census, but 2020 is now here, and repetition of these points is crucial to hammer home why Census Day is arguably the least trivial day on the calendar, experts say.

“The word’s gotten out that North Carolina is a great place to live. We’re growing by a net of 100,000 people a year. That’s about the size of Wilmington, every year, and have been doing that for the past 20 to 30 years,” Bob Coats of the N.C. Office of State Budget and Management recently told a gathering of North Carolina mayors. As the governor’s official Census liaison, Coats’ role is to make sure as many people as possible understand the gravity of a decennial census and what they can expect in participating. “Having a picture of what that extra growth looks like — what is the nature of the people that are moving into North Carolina, where are they moving, and what sort of challenges does that present to you as local leaders? That’s a key point of why the Census matters so much.”

The April 1 date is less of a one-day observance and more of a reference point for Census officials, and by extension the country. How many people were living in your household on that date? How do they identify in terms of race? Were you the home’s owner at the time? Renter? Those questions and a few other basic data queries represent the 2020 Census, nine questions in all. The activity is constitutionally mandated every 10 years, and the info collected through it informs how countless federal, state and private decisions play out, from how electoral districts are drawn to where industries choose to build and hire. From federal coffers, $675 billion is divvied up to communities based on Census data. And just imagine a municipal planning department without access to reliable growth figures or comparative points.

Yes, lousy participation in the Census can cost your community and the state dearly, officials say.

The Census will not ask for
> Social Security numbers
> Bank or credit card information
> Money or donations
> Anything on behalf of a political party

Fortunately, Coats got a laugh from the N.C. Mayors Association when he asked its members, just to be sure, whether anyone was surprised to learn a decennial headcount was coming. Another laugh followed when he asked if any local government represented in the room could live without those federal allocations.

“These are taxes you’ve already paid,” Coats noted. “So for anybody who doesn’t get counted in the Census, the economic impact goes to some other community.”

What’s Next
Census experts are adamant that local officials are vital in these efforts, in making sure all neighborhoods and possibly hard-to-count populations understand what the headcount is all about and how personal information — which the U.S. Census Bureau keeps confidential for a full 72 years from the point of collection — is used.

A big piece of the 2020 operation is the internet; it’s the first time the Census Bureau is encouraging responses to the questionnaire online. The Bureau assures its security infrastructure will keep the data safe and private, though indeed not every household is connected to the web, so their occupants will either visit their local library’s computer room or submit responses over the phone or via paper form.

Beginning in March, Census mailings will go out to all households, with internet, phone and paper response options available. Coats suggested that local communities should schedule Census assistance in places with internet access. A “motivation” media campaign will hit the airwaves from March to May to drum up public interest.

After April 1, Census Day, nonresponse followups will commence to make sure every last household is represented. This will include door-to-door visits from Census employees, who will have a photo ID with a U.S. Department of Commerce watermark and other credentials. (To show how earnest the Census Bureau is about this, it began its 2020 headcount in remote parts of Alaska.)

By December 31, state populations must be reported, which is significant for North Carolina as it may result in one new congressional seat here (if not two).

Getting into 2021, the ink is still wet; local and tribal governments unsatisfied with their headcount results can contest them with the Census Bureau in hopes of a more accurate figure.

In a new offering this time around, individual communities — neighboring towns, for example — can actually enter into friendly competition to see which has the better response rate. The Census Bureau will be tracking response rates that the public can visualize via online map, and its Community Challenge Toolkit can create a goodnatured motivator for municipalities or counties. Coats pointed out that quick responses to the Census improves the quality of data and lowers operational costs. The toolkit is found online at https://2020census. gov/en/response-rates.

General Census info pertinent to North Carolina is online at https://