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An accurate census count is vital

In 2020, Pennsylvania residents will be asked to take part in two crucial political processes: the presidential election and the U.S. census. You’re probably familiar with the upcoming election, given the round-the-clock media coverage and social media commentary, but the census, while often overlooked, is also an essential component of our democracy.

Every 10 years, the U.S. government is mandated by the Constitution to count every person living in the country. Unlike voting, which is limited to a registered class of citizens, the census seeks to count everyone regardless of age, gender or citizenship status, once and only once. The government then uses those data to apportion representatives to Congress, redraw federal and state legislative districts, and distribute billions of dollars of aid across more than a hundred federal spending programs. In 2015, that federal aid number exceeded more than $850 billion.

The money that flows from the federal government to communities in Pennsylvania will change with the results of the 2020 census. That is why an accurate count is so important to communities across the state. It’s especially important in rural communities where accurate counts are typically harder to obtain. The list of federal spending programs that Pennsylvanians benefit from includes Medicare and Medicaid coverage, food stamps, school breakfast and lunch programs, student loan assistance, special education funding, highway and transportation investment, and low income housing assistance, along with dozens more. If communities are undercounted by the census, they will lose out on funding that they rightfully deserve.

As you might imagine, it is a monumental task for the U.S. Census Bureau to count everyone in the United States and to do so accurately. The process has already begun in census offices around the country. By Census Day, April 1, most households will have received a census invitation in the mail, while a small minority will have gotten theirs directly from a census taker going door-to-door. Less than 1 percent of all respondents will be recorded by a census taker, so it’s up to the vast majority of people to respond to the census on their own. And therein lies the difficulty.

Because many people in the United States are under-informed about the importance of the census, the basic demographic questions it asks or how quickly and easily it can be completed, a difficult task becomes that much harder for the Census Bureau. At the same time, many constituencies, particularly immigrants and people of color, are skeptical or actively misinformed about how the government uses the data it collects; these people are often led to believe that filling out the census could make them vulnerable under the law or compromise their privacy. As a result, it’s often the communities that rely the most on federal assistance that are at the greatest risk of being undercounted. Those communities can’t afford to suffer the negative political and economic consequences that result from undercounting. It’s important to note that, by law, the government cannot release any information obtained through the census that identifies a person individually and the census process has been designed with multiple layers of protection to ensure each respondent’s privacy.

In the coming months, look for your census packet in the mail, one per household. It should take less than 10 minutes to fill out the required information or, for the first time in the history of the U.S. Census, you can respond online at census.gov. Remind family members, friends, neighbors, and co-workers to fill theirs out too. Mention to them how important it is to be counted, how their congressional representation depends on it, and how the distribution of so many vital public services depends on the government knowing exactly how many people, citizen or not, live in the community. As the U.S. Census Bureau says, we can “shape our future.” April 1 is National Census Day. Please plan to participate in the census this year and help make sure all of our neighbors are counted!

Lisa Davis is director and outreach associate professor of health policy and administration, and Andrew Shelden is communications consultant, both with the Pennsylvania Office of Rural Health.

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