Census data affects local funding, congressional representation

Thu, 05/07/2020 - 6:00pm
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Filling out your census form is not just a mechanism to count a city or town’s population, it also directly ties into federal funding that municipality may — or may not — receive, according to Jeff Behler, the Regional Director for the U.S. Census Bureau.

Census workers were scheduled to head out and knock on doors in March, but the coronavirus pandemic put a halt to that. Census workers are now scheduled to start on Aug. 11, but Behler said residents don’t have to wait for someone to show up at their house in order to fill out the form.

“Every household can for the first time ever and give their information right over the phone,” said Behler, who spoke to The Block Island Times on Friday, April 30. Behler said there are 14 separate phone numbers, each in a different language. Residents can also fill out their census online. “We have English and 12 non-English languages available,” said Behler. “Just hit a button and the page will automatically translate into” the language the visitor has chosen.

Residents can also fill out the form the old-fashioned way, on paper, or they can wait until August and have the census taker come to their door. While census data has traditionally been delivered to the desk of the President on Dec. 31 of the year the census was taken, the COVID-19 crisis has pushed that delivery date back to April 2021, due to legislation passed in Congress.

“This allows us to revamp. We can wait until it’s safe and communities have relaxed their restrictions,” Behler said.

That said, Behler said the agency understood there are ongoing concerns about privacy and citizenship issues that individuals and households may have. He stressed that census information is not shared.

“The census is safe,” Behler said. “Every piece of data we collect is protected under federal law.” He said that individual or household information is protected. “After 9/11, agencies wanted access to our data at the person level and we did not release it,” Behler said, nor is it shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement or Homeland Security. We can never release our data at a person or house hold level.” He mentioned that the question of citizenship that was once proposed for the census form was blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“People may be worried about sharing the data about someone in their household and we have concerns about that,” Behler said, stressing again that “We can’t share the data. Local, state and fed law enforcement can never access our date at any time for any reason.”

Behler said there are direct benefits to a community for fully participating in the federal head count.

“When you look at representation, the number of seats the state has in the House is based on census data,” said Behler. “There is some concern that Rhode Island may lose one of its congressional seats.” Rhode Island has two seats in the House of Representatives: David Cicillini and Jim Langevin. “States like Texas are projected to gain seats. New York may lose a seat or two. In Rhode Island, we’re not losing population, we’re just not gaining it as fast as other areas,” said Behler. “That’s why it’s so important that we get ther most accurate information for Rhode Island.”

The census can also have an impact at the local level

“There are hundreds of billions of dollars allocated every year based on census data,” he said. “In Rhode Island, $3.8 billion came into the state” in 2016, he said, and that included money for Medicaid, Pell Grants, highway planning and construction projects.

“If you have 100 kids in your school and only 80 get counted, you will only get 80 percent of your available funding,” said Behler. “That hurts everybody. That’s why the census is so important for Block Island.”

Behler also said that the Census Bureau is still recruiting workers for the August field work, “This is one of the best gig jobs out there,” Behler said, noting that a census taker can create their own schedule, which will be accommodated.

How to process your census information:

Online, folks can visit my2020census.gov. If responding online, please note that you cannot save your progress and that you must complete the census in one sitting, however you can preview the questions asked.

To respond by phone, call (844) 330-2020 (Note: there are other lines for various languages available as well: https://2020census.gov/en/ways-to-respond/responding-by-phone.html).

Most mainland households received their invitation to respond to the 2020 Census in March. These official Census Bureau mailings included detailed information and a Census ID for completing the census online. In mid-April, the Census Bureau began mailing paper questionnaires to homes that have not yet responded online or by phone. If folks prefer, they still have the option of responding online or by phone instead.

Application forms can be filled out at my2020census.gov.