With the 2020 census around the corner, coordinators in Lane County and Cottage Grove are ramping up preparations and outreach efforts for the decennial survey.
“This census will be very important for the State of Oregon as we may be able to acquire additional congressional seats,” said City Manager Richard Meyers. “It’s also very important for us in funding that we receive, the hospital receives and the school district. Even nonprofit organizations receive funding as a result of the count.”
While the city has partnered with U.S. Census Bureau staff to find ways to reduce the non-response rate for the community and improve the accuracy of the local count, the Lane Council of Governments (LCOG) is tasked with making sure that all addresses in the county have been verified.
“We are that point agency for the county to make sure that we are communicating with the Census Bureau about the addresses in Lane County so they can do a correct count,” said LCOG Executive Director Brenda Wilson.
In addition to her role at LCOG, Wilson has volunteered to coordinate a “complete count committee” for the county to optimize accuracy.
“It’s really important, especially for smaller cities,” said Wilson. “We’re talking SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program), Medicaid, Medicare, educational funds, school lunch programs, Head Start, WIC (Women, Infants and Children), Section 8, children’s health insurance.”
Invitations to respond to the census online are scheduled to appear in Oregon mailboxes March 12 through March 20. Toward the end of that month, reminder letters will be sent out to those who haven’t responded. Between April 8-16, paper copies of the census will be distributed. Then from April 20-27, a final reminder postcard will be sent.
If a household still hasn’t responded after this, census workers will begin dropping by houses to remind people to reply.
The Census Bureau will publish the first results from the 2020 census — the total population for each state — by Dec. 31 this year.
More than $675 billion a year in federal funding is distributed based on census data, funding which is funneled to areas such as transportation, housing, education and healthcare.
“Our nonprofits in the community will get funding from county sources and state sources based on the state population as well. So it’s not just the city government or school district, but a lot of our nonprofits that use those funds from the state or federal government,” said Meyers. “It has a direct local impact.”
On top of funding, the data can aid cities in identifying what their focus areas should be.
“The information that is acquired from the census gives us a snapshot of what is going on in the community,” said Meyers. “[It] helps us look at what we might need to be looking at. For instance, is our population aging as fast as everywhere else or is it aging faster than other places?”
Certain demographics which have been challenging to count in the past, too, may benefit from increased accuracy.
“The other thing that will be important is what’s going on with our Latino population,” said Meyers. “What’s the number? How is it growing? What’s changing? We won’t know who it is or those specifics, but that is important information for us to be able to get services to match those needs.”
The George Washington Institute of Public Policy reported that in the 2016 fiscal year, Oregon received nearly $13.5 billion through 55 federal spending programs which were informed by data derived from the 2010 census.
The census also determines how many representatives each state gets in the United States Congress.
According to Census Bureau estimates, Oregon is among a handful of states whose population has grown significantly since the 2010 census and could therefore gain a sixth seat in the U.S. House of Representatives after the 2020 census.
During the 2010 census, Oregon was estimated to have missed its opportunity to gain another seat by a count of just over 40,000 people.
“A little under 80 percent of Oregon households responded,” said Wilson. “So that leaves, we estimate, about 36,000 Oregonians who won’t respond in 2020.”
Cottage Grove and its surrounding South Lane area has a non-response rate of about 17 to 20 percent, according to data on the Census Bureau website.
“So we’re working with these jurisdictions that have low-response census tracks to target our efforts,” said Wilson. “There are a variety of methods: outreach, education, information.”
Barriers to high responses include highly mobile individuals, complex living arrangements, lack of knowledge about the census, language barriers, rapidly changing technology causing disuse of USPS mail and distrust of government.
Some of the reticence to respond may be due to the personal nature of the questions.
Questions in the 2020 census will ask participants for their name, age, address, how many people are living or staying at a home, whether the home is owned or rented, about the sex, age and race of each person in the home and whether someone is of Hispanic, Latin or Spanish origin.
The last question has been a point of contention for many who fear the data will be used for persecution.
The Census Bureau has stated that it is asking the question for statistical purposes, which will in turn inform numerous policies such as those regarding civil rights or funding for group-specific government programs.
“ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) isn’t going to follow the Census Bureau around. That’s another rumor,” said Wilson. “Information you provide to the Census Bureau is confidential.”
Privacy and Safety
By law, all responses to the census are kept confidential. The law states that the information collected may only be used for statistical purposes.
Still, the question of access to this data has seen its day in court.
In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that address lists are protected confidential information and cannot be disclosed through legal discovery or the Freedom of Information Act. More recently, in 2010, the U.S. Justice Department determined that the Patriot Act does not overrule the legal protections of confidentiality.
Legal precedent has essentially established that no court of law can subpoena census responses.
Furthermore, the Census Bureau states that personal data cannot be used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Homeland Security nor ICE.
Though these legal protections exist, Wilson warned respondents to protect themselves from potential scams.
A letter has already begun circulation, for instance, which claims to be a form for the “2020 Congressional District Census” commissioned by the Republican Party.
“It looks like a census form,” said Wilson. “But at the very bottom of that form it’s asking for a donation. No one will ever be asked to pay to respond to the census.”
Requests to respond to the census over email, phone or text message are also suspect and it is recommended that such solicitations are not given a response.
“It’s really important people respond to [the census] and they respond to the actual one,” Wilson said.
When invitations come in the mail, respondents are instructed to count everyone in the household, including infants, and can respond by phone, online or through mail.
Computers at the Cottage Grove Public Library will be available for those in the community who lack internet access.
Paid supervisory and non-supervisory positions are still available with the Census Bureau in Lane County. Applications may be found online at 2020census.gov/jobs.