With so much riding on the outcome of the 2020 Census, state and local officials are joining with the federal government in preparing now for the massive undertaking of attempting to count every woman, man, and child living in the United States.
At stake are numbers of seats each state will get in the U.S. House, the boundaries of voting districts, and more than $675 billion per year in federal funds to state and local governments for such necessities as social services, roads, and schools.
Just how much money is in play for the region? Pennsylvania pulls in about $2,100 in federal funds per person, and New Jersey receives about $1,960, according to a 2017 report by the George Washington Institute of Public Policy.
“The important thing is we only have one opportunity every 10 years,” said Fernando Armstrong, director of the Census Bureau’s Philadelphia Regional Office. “So it’s critical to the country, to the communities to have a good census.”
New Jersey and Pennsylvania are among the 47 states that have created or are considering creating Complete Count Commissions to oversee the 2020 Census. (South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas have declined.) New Jersey’s and Pennsylvania’s plan to convene in the new year. Philadelphia and other cities are creating municipal counterparts. These commissions will be working with the Census Bureau, community organizations, nonprofits, and service providers to come up with the best strategies for reaching residents.
Philadelphia City Council will schedule informational hearings on the Census in the coming year, as proposed by Councilman Derek Green in April.
The statewide counts need to be complete, particularly in Philadelphia, Green said, "to make sure we get the resources we need to improve the lives of residents.”
In the 2010 Census, the black population was under-counted by 2.1 percent, and the Latino population by 1.8 percent, the Census Bureau said.
Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, chair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors' census task force, sent a 2020 Census action plan to mayors across the country in June. Among her recommendations: start planning early, update residential address databases, and identify where hard-to-reach populations live.
The Census Bureau plans to start opening its first local offices next month throughout the nine states the Philadelphia office covers.
Philadelphia will get two offices in Center City early next summer. The Census Bureau will hire about 50 Philadelphia-area residents in June and July to staff each office and hundreds of field workers in spring 2020.
That’s also around the time residents can expect to receive the first of three or four letters from the Census Bureau explaining the importance of the census and asking them to complete the questionnaire.
For the first time, people can fill out census forms online, in addition to by phone or mail. Online is easiest on the Census Bureau. But census data released this month shows that Philadelphia’s internet access rate last year was 71.6 percent, the second-lowest of the country’s largest 25 cities. And Philadelphia was the only large city in which internet access declined. Shared computers in places such as libraries and schools will be important to bridge the digital divide, Pugh said.
As in past census counts, the Census Bureau will focus much of its efforts on hard-to-count populations, such as people who are homeless, nomadic renters, college students, children who split time among several family members, infants who families might not think need to be counted, and immigrants wary of sharing information with the government.
A new question the Trump administration wants in the 2020 Census stands to complicate the government’s efforts to gain immigrants' trust: “Is this person a citizen of the United States?”
The administration says the question will mean a more accurate count of residents who are eligible to vote.
Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania joined an April lawsuit filed in by 18 states, a handful of cities, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors against the Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Commerce challenging the addition of the citizenship question. California had sued earlier. The governments argue the question will deter immigrants from participating and depress the count.
“Regardless of your citizenship status, the fact is resources will be used, children will go to schools,” said Pugh, Baltimore’s mayor.
The courts have not yet decided whether to allow the question. A federal judge heard testimony this month on the lawsuit Philadelphia and others filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York and is expected to rule soon. Local governments have filed six other suits. The issue is expected to reach the U.S. Supreme Court next year.
By law, individuals’ Census questionnaire answers are confidential and the bureau cannot share them with any other federal or local agency, Armstrong said. He said Census workers will work with community leaders whom immigrants trust.
"We want to make sure we can be nimble enough to provide for every community and every group within that community whatever they need so they can be part of the Census,” Armstrong said. “It’s a difficult task and that’s why we can’t do it alone.”