In April, the U.S. Census Bureau will begin the decennial census of every household in the United States.
Data from the census is used for several governmental determinations, such as apportionment of the 435 Congressional seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and the future allocation of nearly $675 billion in federal funding for state and local government programs.
Mindful of those consequential stakes, it makes the two-month campaign by county and city staff to both encourage wide-scale census participation and debunk common myths about the census, extremely vital.
“For most of the census, it’s really public awareness and building that knowledge base so people understand the purpose of the census,” said Susan Gwiasda, spokesperson for the city of Ames. “But most importantly, helping the public understand the importance of their participation.
For Gwiasda, engineering census outreach campaigns, such as Claim Ames, isn’t a foreign task.
Referencing her work with the U.S. Census in Dubuque and Ames in the 2000 and 2010 censuses, respectively, Gwiasda said one of the biggest hurdles is alleviating citizens’ fears of participating in the census.
The national average for participation in the 2010 U.S. Census was 74 percent. Participation in Story County totaled 81 percent that year, according to census data.
Participation in Iowa was 78 percent in 2010, third highest in the country, behind Wisconsin and Minnesota, and tied with Indiana, data showed.
“There’s always that fear of what happens if the information is leaked,” Gwiasda said. “The common questions become “do I need to fill it out?” and “why should I fill it out?”
Curtailed participation can lead to potential undercounting, said Gwiasda, and the effects can be damaging on a statewide and local level.
Despite topping 3 million in population, Iowa lost a congressional seat following the 2010 census.
Liesl Eathington, assistant scientist of economics at Iowa State University, said that an accurate Census population count is vital to the next decade of redistricting efforts.
“You really want an accurate count so that you can create districts with representation that is hopefully equal to the population,” said Eathington. “We really need that data for the lower level redistricting efforts, whether it’s state legislatures or school districts and wards at the local level.”
Iowa’s congressional delegation has declined since the 1920s, when the state had 11 seats.
Along with other researchers, Eathington said she doesn’t believe Iowa will gain or lose a congressional seat following this year’s count.
However, the fear of self-enumeration among citizens is real, according to Eathington.
The chief fear, is that the information given is not secure and will be used against them, she said.
“People are concerned anytime they are asked to give personal information, and there exists a fear that it will not be kept secure,” said Eathington. “One thing that the Census Bureau, along with county and city staff continue to urge is that the information is kept secure and is confidential.”
Information that is retained by the U.S. Census Bureau, which includes basic demographic, residential and economic characteristics is protected by law.
“In additional to the privacy issue, people are also concerned that the information they give, race, ethnicity, data, will be used against them and can discourage participation,” said Eathington.
A Census representative confirmed with the Tribune that Census officials are under a lifetime oath to protect personal information, and any violation comes with a penalty of up to $250,000 and a potential prison sentence of five years.
Jerry Moore, Story County planning and development director, knows that the importance of dispelling myths about the Census is important to traditional non-responsive target groups.
Included in the non-responsive target groups are renters, farm workers, veterans, millennials (university-aged/young adults 18-24), minorities and those who are language-constrained, and senior citizens and snow birds, citizens who spend their winters in southern states.
Moore was appointed by the Story County Board of Supervisors as the liaison for the Complete Count Committee in April, a group of individuals and organizations enlisted to spread the word about the importance of the 2020 Census in their communities.
The goal, according to Moore, is to, “count everyone once, only once, and in the right place.”
One of the tools used by the county is a Response Outreach Area Mapper, which tracks census participation levels throughout the county.
While cities like Ames and Nevada have high-participation scores — those people that respond on time — that range in the 25 percent to 30 percent range, the county’s Complete Count Committee is tasked with urging participation in smaller towns like Zearing and McCallsburg that rank toward the bottom at 14 percent for those who respond on time.
“In preparation for the next 90 days, we have had discussions internally to identify ways to educate people about the 2020 Census and ways to reach hard to count people,” said Moore. “For our staff, it means going to libraries, churches, community service centers, veterans and helping them understand the importance of participating in the Census.
On Jan. 13, the city of Ames, in conjunction with Iowa State University, will hold its Claim Ames Kick-Off Event at City Hall.
A major initiative of the Claim Ames campaign is to incorporating student participation — college students are often grouped into the “renter category” and traditionally aren’t counted in the correct city.
“One misconception is that university students may not believe they need to enumerate in Ames, and that their parent can do it in their home,” said Gwiasda. “However, for the Census, you claim the area where you are laying your head a majority of the time. For a student, that would be the town they attend college in.”
For the first time in U.S. Census history, citizens can self-enumerate online, a process Gwiasda hopes can be useful to counting the city’s university population.
“We’re so excited, because for the 2020 Census, people can fill out a form online,” said Gwiasda. “My own personal hope is that this will help with the compliance numbers, and hopefully we’ll see far more completed forms because of how accessible the process will be.”
By April 1, known as Census Day, every home will receive an invitation to participate in the 2020 Census.
Eathington said she hopes that by April 1, the public understand the weight their participation, or potential lack thereof, could have in the next decade of political and social representation.
“It’s important in these next few months to educate residents on all the different ways that the Census information is the basis for so many different government functions and decisions,” she said.