Explain Like I’m 65: "The 2020 Census"

Table of Contents:

  1. How Does a Census Work?
  2. Why Should I Fill Out the 2020 Census?
  3. What Does the 2020 Census Ask?
  4. How Has COVID-19 Affected the 2020 Census?
  5. What Happens Now?

Some people act like they know it all. Our new series Explain Like I’m 65 is for the rest of us. It will provide clear, digestible summaries to help seniors sort through the noise and get the factual information they need. From political buzzwords to household how-tos, we’re here to provide accessible guides and informative answers.

Have you filled out the 2020 Census? Has a representative from the Census Bureau given you a call or even stopped by your home? This once-a-decade tradition isn’t just about letting the government know you exist — it’s a constitutional requirement and an essential source of funds for citizens all across the nation.

This week, we’re taking a closer look at the 2020 Census, additions to the questionnaire, and recent updates to the Census Bureau’s collection process.

How Does a Census Work?

A survey assesses a small group and attempts to draw conclusions about a larger whole. Censuses, on the other hand, necessitate surveying every individual within a population. The U.S. census determines the total number of U.S. residents (both citizens and non-citizens) while recording key demographic information about each individual. Data is collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. In addition to sending out mail-in census forms and managing an online portal, the Bureau employs enumerators to collect information in person. These include around half a million temporary employees.

National Public Radio notes that censuses are always fraught with confusion, but that 2020’s should prove especially hectic. This is due to far more than everyday political polarization or even the unexpected obstacles presented by COVID-19. The Bureau has known for some time that it would have its hands full administering the first census of “the social media age.” In addition to educating Americans on the value of the census, census advocates have had to work doubly hard to address misinformation.

The 2020 Census is notably the first to include an online application form and toll-free number for all Americans.

Why Should I Fill Out the 2020 Census?

First of all, you’re legally obligated to fill out the 2020 census. Americans who refuse to participate, leave questions blank, or provide incorrect information may be subject to a fine. It is worth noting, however, that no one has incurred such a fine since 1970.


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Census results also play a valuable role in determining how political representation and federal funding are meted out. State population counts, for example, are used to assign seats in the House of Representatives and redraw district boundaries. The data is also vital for both federal and private organizations looking to meet the needs of evolving communities, helping them make decisions related to hospitals, schools, roads, and other essential institutions and services.

What Does the 2020 Census Ask?

Most of the questions in the 2020 Census should look familiar to anyone who’s filled out a previous census questionnaire. This year’s census asks for information related to:

  • The names, sex, age, race, and date of birth of each person living in a household as of April 1, 2020, as well as their relationship to the individual filling out the form.
  • Whether the home is owned or rented.
  • Whether any or all of the people living in a household are of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish descent.
  • Phone numbers and email addresses for each person in the home.

Changes include a new opportunity to elaborate on questions related to race and ethnic background. Respondents can now designate romantic relationships as either same-sex or opposite-sex too.

One proposed addition that didn’t make the cut is a question related to citizenship. Federal judges in New York and California rejected the Trump administration’s justification for the question and the Supreme Court followed suit. The President has suggested that the question was intended to protect minorities from discrimination, but critics believe it would only discourage these communities from responding. Under orders from the administration, the Bureau is now at work collecting citizenship data from other federal agencies. They plan to release an anonymized report in 2021 and, if reelected, President Trump could use this to redraw voting districts alongside GOP allies.

How Has COVID-19 Affected the 2020 Census?

COVID-19 forced the Census Bureau to temporarily close its field offices and suspend in-person operations. They were nevertheless able to begin their remote Alaskan headcount in mid-January. In March, more than 95% of households received census questionnaires in the mail with the option to resubmit them postage-free. By the middle of March, the Census Bureau confirmed that it would extend its deadline to August 14th; that deadline was soon extended to October 31st.

The new deadline was also short-lived. On Monday, August 3rd, the Census Bureau announced that it would end both its in-person and self-response counts one month early, on September 30th. In-person interviews (which have started in some states) were previously scheduled to move nationwide on August 11th. Just around 60% of households have responded. Already stymied by the pandemic, the Census Bureau now has under two months to account for nearly half of the population.

In an official statement, the Bureau revealed that they would increase hiring and make other adjustments to “accelerate the completion of data collection and apportionment counts by our statutory deadline of December 31, 2020.” They reiterate their commitment to diligence, but commentators are skeptical. NPR suggests that the move threatens the credibility of the census and could leave millions un- or underserved.

What Happens Now?

Efforts to expedite or end the counting process have already raised concerns among House Democrats and some neutral parties. The story is sure to remain relevant and controversial throughout the close of 2020 and the rest of the election cycle. It’s even possible that the next round of COVID-19 relief will include provisions that give the Census Bureau more time to ensure every American is counted and provided for.