What you may not know about the upcoming census – and probably should

While April may still seem far away, many local leaders are buckling down and working hard to raise awareness about the importance of being counted in the 2020 Census.

Every 10 years the United States Census counts everyone living within the United States. The federal government uses this information exclusively to distribute more than $800 billion each year across states, counties, and cities. This funding helps communities with everything from improving hospitals, schools and fire departments, to highway planning and construction, and support for social services.

The federal government uses data from the census to distribute more than $800 billion each year across states, counties, and cities – dollars that helps provide funding for hospitals, schools and fire departments, construction, and social services.

In March, Isabella County residents will receive a letter in the mail with a unique online login and instructions on how to complete the 2020 U.S. census.

Though responses can still be accepted by phone or mail, the 2020 census will be the first time it can be completed online.

An online census is a shift in strategy for the
U.S. Census Bureau, which is seeking to move away from door-to-door visits to cut costs by decreasing manpower. This has some concerned that the transition to digital census-taking may mean an undercount for their counties.

The
Mt. Pleasant Area Community Foundation is partnered with other community foundations in Bay, Midland, and Saginaw counties through the Great Lakes Bay Regional Census Hub and, together, they are working together to ensure an accurate count.

“Look at what happened with the roll out of affordable health care, what if the same thing happens,” says Amanda Schafer, executive director of the Mt. Pleasant Area Community Foundation (MPACF). “You won’t have as many people going around and knocking on doors trying to get people to fill out the census. They’re going to get who they can online first and then they’ll send some folks out; but not like before. It could be an undercount for us.”


Assistant Fire Chief for the City of Mt. Pleasant Doug Lobsinger says that while public safety isn’t usually one of the first areas to experience cuts and that a slight miscount likely will not impact public safety operations, it’s important for taxpayers to realize the significance of the census count and utilize resources that are available.

“Each person that we don’t get counted affects the local city government’s money that it gets through grants and fund distributions,” Lobsinger says. “We can do a lot of things for the community but we can only provide the level of service that the taxpayer can afford to pay, no matter what level of service that is. I could list a hundred things I’d like to do better than we do right now, but it all depends on what the taxpayer can afford to spend. We need to continue to be looking for outside sources.”

A variety of community organizations could be impacted by the results of the 2020 Census.

Information published by the Michigan Nonprofits Count Campaign shows a study by George Washington University found that an undercount could mean a loss of nearly $104 million in annual federal funding for Isabella County. That equates to a $1,463 loss for each person not counted.

“People have been asking why philanthropy is involved in this,” Schafer says. “If there’s not enough dollars coming from the federal and state revenues, where are people going to go to make up the difference in the food stamp program? Where are people going to go to make sure that kids have lunches and that babies have formula and diapers? They’re going to go to philanthropy, and I’ve got to tell you-there’s not enough. I could fundraise from now until the 2030 census and it wouldn’t be enough to make up that difference.”

Isabella Community Soup Kitchen (ICSK) in Mt. Pleasant is one local organization that could feel the pinch from an undercount, says Sarah Adkins, executive director of the ISCK and a member of the Isabella County Census Advisory Committee.

The soup kitchen serves breakfast and lunch six days a week and is currently undergoing a capital campaign to renovate and expand to accommodate growing numbers.

Adkins says that while ICSK doesn’t receive any direct federal or state funding, the soup kitchen will still feel it if there is a strain on resources because of how closely the service organizations work together in the community.

“Fortunately, we’re currently in a position to be able to help the number of people that we do,” Adkins says. “But hopefully we’re able to do a good enough job getting people to report for the census so that everyone’s resources aren’t pushed to the limit.”

Local leaders are working to raise awareness about the importance of being counted in the 2020 Census and inform the public that an individual's data collected from the census is confidential and protected by federal law, therefore it cannot be shared.

While census results are critical in determining funding allocation, it also impacts political representation.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, census data is used to determine the number of seats each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives and to redraw boundaries for state and local legislative districts.

“After the 2010 census we (Michigan) lost a seat in the House of Representatives,” Schafer says. “We’re at risk of losing potentially two more.”

Based on response rates from the 2010 census results, Schafer says we can identify populations that are hard to count. Among those are rural seniors without access to technology, homeless and transient people who may not have an address, and off-campus students.

“College students are a big one,” Schafer says. “On campus I think they’ve got figured out; it’s the off-campus rentals and the places where you’ve got four people living where it’s only supposed to be two. They’re worried about filling it out and their landlord seeing it. We’re just trying to tell people that none of that stuff matters. It’s not going to get reported to your landlord.”

The 10-question census form collects basic demographic and housing information. Everyone living in the household on April 1, 2020 should be included in the count.

“When you get down to it, the questions are less invasive on the census than they are on Facebook,” Schafer says.

An individual’s data collected from the census is confidential and protected by federal law, therefore it cannot be shared. A rundown of the 2020 census questions and why they are included can be found on the United States Census 2020’s
website.

Schafer says current efforts are focused on outreach and awareness.

“I’m just wanting folks to feel like this is worth their time,” Schafer says. “This has ramifications at the local, state, and federal level. By taking a little bit of money now and spreading it out to charities in the local community that people trust, it can make a really big impact for dollars and cents that will come to our community in the future.”

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