Updated at 11:50 a.m. on March 12 with information about census letters
Most of the country will get letters from the U.S. Census Bureau starting March 12.
The letters ask for households to respond to the census, which happens every 10 years and is mandated by the Constitution. It counts the total number of people in the country and where they currently live on April 1.
According to Linda Gladden, a media specialist with the bureau, 95% of households in the country will receive mail inviting them to respond to the 2020 census through March 20.
“There are nine quick questions; it’s not going to take very long for people to complete the census,” she said. “They can complete it online, on paper, or they can call it in.”
In the greater St. Louis region, the majority of residents will only be asked to respond to the survey online or by phone. Those who live in or near East St. Louis, north St. Louis and north St. Louis County will also have the option to mail in a paper questionnaire that they’ll receive with their invitation to respond.
The census bureau made that determination depending on how likely an area is to respond online, Gladden said.
Listen: Alex Rankin of Missouri's Foundation of Health joined "St. Louis on the Air" host Sarah Fenske to answer questions about the census process and potential coronvavirus concerns.
What does the census ask?
The census asks how many people live in a specific household. The person who responds must count how many people are or will be living in their home on April 1. It also asks more detailed information about each person living there, like their age, gender, race, if they’re of Hispanic or Latino origin, and their relationship to the responder.
The form also asks for the phone number of the person who responds to it, Gladden said.
“The only reason we ask for that is if we have to contact you to follow up and ask any questions,” she explained.
Finally, the survey asks if the home is rented, owned or has a mortgage.
Will I be asked about my citizenship?
No. After initially pushing for a census question about citizenship, the Trump administration dropped the issue in 2019. In addition, courts permanently blocked the administration from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
How will I be contacted?
The bureau solicits responses to the census by mail. Letters are sent to individual households the Census Bureau has identified.
“It’s not going to be emailed out, they’re not going to call directly,” said Lisa Mersinger, Community Development Coordinator for Madison County. Mersinger leads the county’s efforts to achieve an accurate count.
Once a household completes the survey, it will not receive any more communication from the census bureau, unless there are follow-up questions. A home will receive at most four more letters asking for a response before a census worker visits the address in person.
Why is responding important?
The results of the census determine how many congressional seats each state gets. It also is the framework for how federal funding and grants are alloted.
“There’s $675 billion that’s distributed nationwide, statewide based on that census data,” Gladden said. “Everyone in every community is impacted by that funding and by the representation.”
This represents funding for schools and other local infrastructure Gladden said. The census also determines the number of congresspeople each state gets.
What if I don’t respond?
Responding to the census is required by law and the bureau will follow up with individual households that don’t initially respond by April 1. The bureau will send additional reminders, including a paper questionnaire in mid-April, Gladden said.
After those attempts to get a response fail, the census will send in-person census takers to households to collect responses in May, June and July.
How can I know to trust the government with my information?
All responses to the census — online included — are kept secure and confidential, Gladden said.
“The minute they hit the send button, that information is transmitted to the Census Bureau,” she said. “The information is encrypted. People should not be concerned about any of the data leaking out to other places.”
The census won’t turn over any information that could be used for policing, or residential code enforcement. Gladden said census workers — even temporary ones — are sworn to keep any information about the count confidential.
“Everyone who works for the census bureau has to take an oath,” she said. “That oath doesn’t end once my employment with the census bureau ends. That is an oath I take for life.”
I’m concerned about being scammed.
With a campaign as large as the census, there will be people who try to use it to scam others. Mersinger listed a few tips on how to spot a census scam.
“They should not ask you to make a donation of any kind, ask you to support a political party, or threaten jail time to get you to complete the census,” she said.
The survey also does not collect any sensitive information, like a Social Security number, or times when household members leave or return from work, she added.
Official census workers will have IDs with their names and pictures, as well as a watermark showing they work for the U.S. Department of Commerce, Mersinger explained.
Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project.
Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid
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