What to Expect From the 2020 Census

Technology

What to Expect From the 2020 Census

The 2020 count will determine everything from congressional districts in your state to funds for roads and bridges.

Illustration by Richard Faust

Debate over the citizenship question is no longer looming over the 2020 census. But other developments are shaking up this once-a-decade count of the entire U.S. population, which starts in January in remote Alaska and continues well into the spring.

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The biggest change for 2020: digitization. Invitations to take the census will start arriving in the mail at most homes in mid-March. But for the first time, households will be encouraged to answer the questionnaire online (or by phone) rather than by mail. You’ll be asked several questions about the ages, genders, races and ethnic origins of people in your household.

You’ll also be able to supply new answers to some questions. For example, people can identify as same-sex spouses or partners. Uncle Sam will hire fewer temp workers to go door-to-door to follow up and verify addresses.

Why the census matters. The decennial census, which is required by the U.S. Constitution, determines how many seats each state gets in Congress for the next decade, as well as how many electoral college votes are counted per state. “The biggest question mark is California,” says William Frey, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “There is a possibility that it could lose a seat for the first time in its history.” Other states on the cusp of losing seats include New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Florida and Texas are expected to gain seats. Census counts are also used to redraw congressional, state legislative, municipal and school districts, based on how populations have shifted.

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The population and demographic data gathered from the decennial census is rarely used on its own for other purposes because it quickly becomes outdated. But the data it collects serves as a basis for more-frequent surveys, such as the annual American Community Survey, which influences everything from new highway construction to eligibility for tax credits.

About 310 federal programs rely on data sourced from the census to distribute $1.5 trillion per year, according to current findings from the George Washington University Institute of Public Policy’s Counting for Dollars Project. The money goes to programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Title I grants for disadvantaged schoolchildren. Undercounts can skew the balance of how much funding a state or community receives.

“The census-derived data doesn’t determine how big the pie is, but who gets what slice of the pie,” says Andrew Reamer, research professor at the GW Institute of Public Policy. Private businesses will analyze census-derived data to decide where to open stores and what to sell.

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Challenges ahead. Moving the census online may be more efficient, but it opens up the data to new security risks. The Government Accountability Office recently reported that the Census Bureau remains vulnerable to cyberattacks. “To its credit, the Census Bureau has indicated it will encrypt the data and use two-factor authentication, but that’s the floor, not the ceiling, of modern cybersecurity protections,” says Joshua Geltzer, executive director of Georgetown University’s In­stitute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection. Despite these concerns, he says, everyone should participate to ensure that their interests are represented for the decade to come.