Get Ready! The 2020 Census is Coming!

2020 will be a very interesting year. The United States will have another presidential election. The James Webb telescope, Hubble’s replacement, is scheduled to launch into space. And the United States will conduct it’s twenty-third national Census.

To put it mildly, the Census is a very big deal. Every ten years, the Census Bureau counts every individual in the country, where they live, their race, their income – a whole suite of data that has been tallied and saved since 1790. This count is used to determine how many Congressional seats go to each state, how much money state and local governments receive from the federal government, and the data is used regularly to make decisions at the local, regional, and national levels. In other words, gathering this information has become crucial to the effective governance of the United States.

It should be obvious that collecting the decennial census is not a small undertaking. The last census count, conducted in 2010, employed 650,000 people and cost $12 billion. The 2020 Census is estimated to cost $15.6 billion. Throughout its history, the Census Bureau has done a decent job of conducting the count, and I have no doubt that they will do their best to conduct a thorough census in 2020. But the Bureau has a very steep hill to climb to get there.

The worry over the Census started to gather steam in 2017 when the then director of the Census Bureau, John Thompson, resigned over concerns regarding years of budget cuts. While the final 2018 budget passed by Congress in March gave the Bureau a budget bump to help conduct the Census, there are still a lot of people worrying about the count. Part of the concern lies in technology. The 2020 Census will be the very first census conducted almost entirely online. This new technology was supposed to be tested a total of three times, but because the budget was cut so dramatically at the beginning of the decade, only one small test will be conducted.

On the surface, and not counting the online component, conducting the 2020 Census will look familiar. In the beginning, the online questionnaire will be available for people to fill out. After a certain amount of time, Bureau workers will start knocking on your door. However, the staff hired to help count has been cut drastically; the 2020 Census will hire 200,000 less employees to go door-to-door, and will make ½ the number of attempts. Historically, minorities and low-income populations have regularly been undercounted. Without testing, and with a decreased staff, the fear is that these historic undercounts will be even worse. Undercounts are very, very bad for everyone.

In addition, a new question on citizenship has raised fears that not everyone will be willing to fill out the Census. Some Census data supports these fears. There is a fascinating history of immigration questions on the Census, but since 1950 those immigration questions have not appeared on the short form Census (which goes to everyone). Instead, they are included in the long-form Census (conducted each year since 2000 in the American Community Survey) which is distributed to just 1 in 6 families. Again, this fear could lead to undercounting of minorities.

This is a lot of bad news. You may be asking what any of this has to do with libraries. It all comes down to funding. Budgets from local, state and federal bodies are based on census counts. That includes library budgets of all types: public, academic, special, and school libraries. This effects academic libraries in land-grant colleges and universities, and grant-funded, public library after school programs for children. Special libraries may see less funding from the NEA or the NEH. In short, a bad Census is bad for literally everyone in the United States, but will be very bad for libraries whose budgets depend in whole or in part on Census determined funds. This means less quality services for your patrons – and fewer librarians to offer those services.

Libraries aren’t helpless. They are capable of impacting real change, and can ensure that their communities are counted. In a recent keynote address at the Michigan Academic Libraries Association annual conference, Ayana Rubio, a data analyst at Data Driven Detroit, addressed how important good data is to helping local communities thrive. In answer to a question, Ms Rubio suggested that libraries can help mitigate the loss of data in the 2020 Census by providing publicly accessible computers with direct links to the Census questionnaire. Trained librarians who have reviewed the Census before, and are familiar with the survey process, can help patrons who have questions about the Census.

But we can do more than that. We can reach out to the communities who are most at risk – minorities, immigrants, and low-income communities – and explain the importance of filling out the Census. Running an information campaign from our libraries allows our communities to understand the importance of the Census. Encouraging patrons to fill out the survey will help our libraries have the data needed to ensure funding. Information sessions, flyers, survey filing events can all be harnessed in service to our communities. And libraries of all kinds can help each other. Academic libraries can support their public partners by providing knowledgeable instructors. Public libraries can provide access to computers. Special libraries can create information brochures or websites. Libraries of all sorts can also reach out to various businesses and other institutions for community collaborations. Librarians are a creative bunch; we can use our formidable energy and talents to mobilize our communities.

Ultimately, encouraging our patrons to complete the Census is helping them help themselves. Libraries are not the only institutions who have a stake in the Census. The fabric of our government is based on a strong foundation of data. It’s a bit embarrassing that our country can’t get the data that we need when data has taken such an important role in our society. As active community institutions, libraries have a great stake in the 2020 Census. Let’s work to ensure that the count is both accurate and fair.

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