Necessity of accurate U.S. Census count in 2020 emphasized to Siesta Key Association members

Census Bureau representative talks of history, increased reliance on the internet to get answers, and confidentiality measures

Neal Dollar addresses SKA members on Nov. 7. Rachel Hackney photo

When the first U.S. Census was taken, in 1790, horseback was the most common means of transportation for representatives of the newly organized nation as they worked to get as accurate a count as possible. In 2020, the Census Bureau hopes to get 95% of its responses via the internet.

That contrast was one of many facets about the upcoming Census presented to Siesta Key Association (SKA) members during their regular meeting on Nov. 7.

The ultimate goal is not to miss anyone, Neal E. Dollar, partnership specialist with the Atlanta Regional Census Center, pointed out, because about $675 billion a year “gets distributed [from the federal government] based on the count.”

That money gets divvied up among 132 programs, including Medicare Part B, highway and road construction, and housing assistance, he explained. “A lot of [the money] is geared towards the less fortunate in our communities …”

Additionally, Dollar told the approximately 40 people, states’ representation in Congress is pegged to their population. After the 2010 Census, Dollar noted, Florida picked up two more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, while Texas gained four. New York State and Ohio lost two apiece, he added.

About 1,000 people are moving to Florida each day, he said. “I think we all realize that.” Based on that fact, he continued, “In 2020, we will probably gain additional seats [in Florida],” giving the state more political power.

In 2010, Dollar explained, 72% of the American households that received Census forms returned them. In Sarasota County, he noted, the rate of return was 75%, up a notch from the 74% rate for the 2000 Census.

Dollar noted that the Census Bureau expects to hire a total of 500,000 people to assist with the 2020 count.

In Sarasota County, he added, the Bureau will pay $15.50 an hour and 58 cents a mile. He did caution that, because the Bureau is part of the federal government, it could take three or four months for an application to be processed — including the necessary background checks.

Still he said, “You work at whatever hours you want to. … It’s really flexible.”

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The process for the count

These are among the questions that will be on the 2020 Census. Image courtesy U.S. Census Bureau

On March 12, Dollar said, the Census Bureau will send a letter to every single residence in America. That letter will include a code that will enable a member of the household to log in at the Census Bureau and answer the 10 questions on the Census. “That’ll save us a lot of labor,” he pointed out, as well as the expense of mailing the forms.

Thanks to temporary hires, he explained, the Census Bureau verifies “where all the addresses are.”

Every residence where someone has failed to complete the questionnaire by March 19 will be mailed a postcard reminder, he continued. If no information is submitted to the Census Bureau after that, he added, a third mailer will go out, asking that someone at the residence go online and fill out the questions.

Finally, he said, if no response results, the Census Bureau will mail a questionnaire to the address, figuring that that is how the people living at that residence want to respond.

However, Dollar noted, the Census Bureau will not send a form to a post office box. If that is the only mailing address it can find for someone, he explained, then the Census Bureau will send a person to the residence in mid-April to ask for the information.

“It is one of our challenges,” he continued, “because it does require a lot of labor …”

These are among the ways the federal government utilizes the decennial Census data. Image courtesy U.S. Census Bureau

In response to a question from past SKA President Gene Kusekoski about how seasonal residents are counted in an area such as Siesta Key, Dollar said, “Our goal is to count everyone in America once and only once and in the right place.” The primary criterion for the Bureau, Dollar continued, is where a person spends most of his or her time. The threshold is six months and one day. If a person lives in Florida for that long a period each year, Dollar added, then Florida is where the person should be counted.

It is possible that a person might fill out questionnaires for two different homes in two different states, Dollar noted. However, the staff of the Census Bureau uses available data to try to root out duplications, he said. The Bureau will call the person and ask, “Where do you spend the majority of your time?”

When SKA Vice President Dan Lundy asked about counting undocumented residents and those with temporary visas, Dollar replied, “We want to count every inhabitant in America,” regardless of whether a person is a citizen.

For example, Dollar continued, migrant workers in Florida for eight to 10 months a year should be counted in Florida. Undocumented residents should be counted, too, Dollar said, referring to the distribution of federal dollars for so many disparate programs. “It’s our job to count everyone,” he reiterated his earlier comment. “We’ll let the politicians worry about the political ramifications.”

Confidentiality assurances

The Census Bureau staff is well aware that some people do not have ready access to the internet, Dollar said. Even people who do have their own computers may be suspicious of submitting information online, he pointed out.

Yet, Dollar stressed that — regardless of how it gets the data from households — the Census Bureau is committed to confidentiality. In fact, he said, even people like him, who are working to educate groups about what to expect next year, have to swear an oath, just as if they were joining the Armed Forces.

If he were to violate that oath, Dollar added, he would have to spend five years in a federal prison and pay a $250,000 fine.

The laptop he keeps with him also has been designed to secure data, he added.

Further, he stressed, the Bureau does not turn over personal data to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or the FBI or law enforcement officers.

These are key milestones for the Census Bureau in 2020. Image courtesy U.S. Census Bureau

The Census Bureau takes also steps “to dilute demographic information from an area” to camouflage it before the data is released, Dollar said. For example, he pointed out, the Bureau “will disperse the data across multiple blocks, if you will,” so it is “not strictly related to an address.”

Challenges to overcome

Some areas pose more challenges to the Census Bureau than others, Dollar noted. Among those, he said, are communities where poverty is predominant and areas with large immigrant populations. Communities that are linguistically isolated also present a challenge, he pointed out.

One community in Sarasota County that has proven a challenge in the past is Newtown, the historically African American area in North Sarasota, Dollar told the SKA members. “There’s a lot of people [in Newtown] that don’t trust the government.”

Another area that has been problematic in Sarasota County, he said, is North Port, which has a “big Russian/Ukrainian population … leery of government questionnaires.”

This graphic provides details about the confidentiality of Census data. Image courtesy U.S. Census Bureau

An additional issue of note, regarding the 2010 Census, was the fact that children under the age of 5 were most likely to be missed, he added. The Bureau calculated that its undercount was about 1 million, he said; it wants very much to avoid such a situation in 2020.

Much of the federal money distributed according to population goes to programs for children, he emphasized.

Because of societal changes, he continued, “Grandma and Grandpa may be watching the grandchildren,” yet thinking the parents of those children will include them on the questionnaires the parents fill out. Then the parents, he said, may omit the children from their forms.