With a new decade comes a new census. Starting March 12, every household across the country will receive a letter in the mail, explaining how to respond to the 2020 census by phone, mail, or—for the first time ever—online.
Census data is used to redraw legislative districts, determining the amount of seats each state is allotted in the House of Representatives, as well as to appropriately distribute more than $675 billion in government funding to communities across the country.
“The census is tied to everything, from health care to housing to social services,” says Kathy O’Connell, who works for the division of the census that oversees Virginia. “It’s extremely important that we have a good count of who lives in a particular place.”
To catch those who don’t respond on their own, the bureau also employs census takers to go door to door and record responses in person. And it is looking to hire hundreds right here in Charlottesville.
“We need large numbers,” says O’Connell, “We are [especially] interested in candidates with language abilities.”
To encourage more people to apply, the bureau has raised the pay for census workers to $22 an hour in Charlottesville and $21.50 in Albemarle County. Other perks include paid training, weekly paychecks, mileage reimbursement, and flexible hours.
Some populations are underrepresented in the data, particularly young people and immigrant communities. Our local Complete Count Committee includes a subcommittee focused on ensuring that refugees and immigrants are aware of the census, as well as identifying and addressing what prevents these populations from participating, such as limited English proficiency and mistrust of the government, says committee co-chair Caitlin Reinhard.
To subvert the many misconceptions surrounding the census, the subcommittee is emphasizing to local communities that the census is confidential, and that “it will have a huge impact on the resources and representation available [to them] over the next 10 years,” Reinhard says.
The Census Bureau is also partnering with a variety of local organizations to increase its outreach. Here in Charlottesville, the International Rescue Committee has created postcards and posters in 10 different languages about the census, along with other informational materials.
“It’s hugely important—now more than ever—that their voices are heard,” says Reinhard, who is also the resettlement manager for the IRC, “and that they are counted as people who make up this great country, whether or not they’re citizens.” (The Trump administration’s attempt to add a question about citizenship status was struck down by the Supreme Court.)
Lakshmi Fjord, a visiting scholar at UVA’s Department of Anthropology, has witnessed the consequences of inadequate census data firsthand. As Dominion Energy worked to build a natural gas compressor station in the historically African American community of Union Hill, the company used broad data from the 2010 census to claim that the area was sparsely populated and predominantly white.
However, by conducting a door-to-door count of the population, Fjord showed that Union Hill has a greater population density than all other parts of the county, with 83 percent minority residents—meaning the compressor would disproportionately (and illegally) affect African Americans. (The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals repealed Dominion’s permit last month.)
“It’s well known that in particularly rural, and maybe everywhere in African American communities, there is far less chance people will open their door to census takers…[so] we trusted elders from the community to go door-to-door,” Fjord says. “This is also an important thing for the census. You cannot just hire eager young people to go around because there’s just not a sense of who they are.”
For this reason, O’Connell strongly encourages residents who are from the local community and know it well to apply to be census takers. Applications are available now at 2020census.gov.