In the midst of the grave threat to our personal and economic health in our state, nation and entire world posed by COVID-19, participating in the 2020 Census may be the last thing on our minds.
But responding to the Census — a national undertaking required by the U.S. Constitution and first administered under President George Washington in 1790 — is more important than ever. Eventually, we will overcome the damage wrought by the virus, and while the recovery for our families, workers and businesses will take time, we will recover. But an accurate count in the 2020 Census will ensure our communities and governments receive critical funds and tools to aid in that recovery, and provide the resources to defeat future public-health threats.
The 2020 Census means empowerment for our communities — financial and political. Each year, the federal government distributes more than $1 trillion based on the most recent Census for senior services, public health, early-childhood education, health care, nutrition programs, crime prevention, low-income housing, emergency preparedness and transportation projects, to name just a few areas of assistance. In 2017, the figure was $1.5 trillion across the nation — with $29.4 billion coming to our state, approximately $4,018 per person per year. An undercount of just 1,000 Washingtonians means a loss of tens of millions of dollars of Census-guided funding over the next decade. That money could make a big difference to our communities for services and programs we all care about, especially for the vulnerable. It is money that can bolster and strengthen our local public-health systems, which the current pandemic demonstrates can never be too strong.
The 2020 Census will also be used to reapportion the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. States that experience growth above the national average will gain seats in Congress, while states that shrink in population or grow at a lower rate will lose seats. Because the 2010 Census showed our state experienced dramatic growth over the preceding 10 years compared to the nation as a whole, we gained a seat in Congress as did seven other states; 10 states lost seats. Washington state is not expected to gain or lose a seat from the 2020 Census. But critically important, the Census count will be used to realign the boundaries of each of our Congressional Districts to ensure equal residents in each district. Fairness and equity depend on an accurate count.
Similarly, the 2020 Census will be used to redraw the boundaries for the 49 districts in the Washington State Legislature. Given the explosive growth in parts of our state, the realignment of district boundaries could result in an additional district being squeezed into the Puget Sound region while other parts of the state would lose a district. For those in fast growing communities who want greater political influence in Olympia: You need to be counted. Conversely, for those primarily in rural area who don’t want your political influence diminished because of an undercount: You need to be counted.
If we want the political power we deserve in the Halls of Congress and in Olympia, if we want our voices fully heard on the issues we care about, we need to be counted.
This year’s Census is easier than ever to complete. Households can respond to the Census online by going to 2020census.gov or over the telephone (toll free, 844-330-2020) in English or 12 foreign languages. It takes 10 minutes or less to answer 10 questions.
The more people respond online, over the telephone, or by a written paper form, the less need for the Census Bureau to hire and send people door-to-door this coming summer.
Given the uncertainty over door-to-door canvassing due to the COVID-19 pandemic — whether the Census Bureau will be able to hire enough people to go door-to-door and whether households will even open the door to Census takers for fear of catching the virus — it is more critical than ever that we respond on our own. Equally important, we need to encourage our relatives, friends, neighbors, co-workers and employees to respond as well.
It is especially important that traditionally hard-to-count populations — racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, nonnative English speakers, renters and other highly mobile populations — are encouraged to respond to the Census, because they are major beneficiaries of many of the services provided by the federal government that are allocated to communities based on the Census. An undercount of these groups hurts not just them but also decreases federal funds for other programs serving the entire state.
Our answers to the 2020 Census are private and by federal law cannot be disclosed for 72 years to anyone or other government agencies, including law enforcement. But the broad demographic profile of our nation, states, cities and neighborhoods — the number of people and their ages, gender, ethnicity — as revealed by the Census is publicly available. This profile is used by planners and businesses in deciding where to site schools, bus routes, government-service centers, medical facilities, supermarkets and malls.
While all of us are doing our part to contain COVID-19 by staying home as much as possible, take the opportunity to respond to the 2020 Census – 10 minutes to answer 10 questions that will impact vital services and political empowerment for our communities for the next 10 years. Be counted!