Updated April 1, 2020 at 10:40 a.m. ET
The federal government is trying to get every U.S. household to answer some personal questions for the 2020 census. It's part of a once-a-decade tradition of counting every person living in the U.S.
Each national head count comes with its own rash of confusion. The 2020 census is the first in the U.S. since the rise of social media and the first U.S. count that's primarily online. For months, the government has been preparing to combat disinformation campaigns that may try to disrupt the count, which is rolling out not only in the middle of a presidential race but also during the coronavirus pandemic.
NPR has been tracking all of the developments to help you figure out what you need to know. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about the census, answered.
Has the coronavirus pandemic delayed the U.S. census?
The outbreak of COVID-19 has forced the Census Bureau to postpone its field operations, but the bureau says it is still collecting information from tens of millions of households that have been responding on their own.
The head count officially began on Jan. 21, in Toksook Bay, Alaska — more than two months before Census Day (April 1), a reference date the bureau uses to determine where people should be counted (in general, at the address where they usually live and sleep as of that date).
Most households were able to start participating around mid-March when letters with instructions were sent to 95 percent of homes around the country.
On March 20, the bureau announced it is extending the end of counting for the census from July 31 to Aug. 14. Officials, however, say that the sooner households fill out a form on their own, the fewer door knockers the bureau will have to try to send out to visit unresponsive homes in person during the ongoing public health crisis.
Why is the census important?
The census is required by the Constitution, which calls for an "actual enumeration" once a decade since 1790. The 2020 population numbers will shape how political power and federal tax dollars are shared in the U.S over the next 10 years. The number of congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state gets are determined by census numbers. They also guide how an estimated $1.5 trillion a year in federal funding is distributed for healthcare, schools, roads and other public services in local communities. The demographic data are used by businesses to determine, for example, where to build new supermarkets and by emergency responders to locate injured people after natural disasters.
How is the census taken?
The 2020 count will be the first one to allow all U.S. households to respond online at my2020census.gov. Starting in early April, paper forms are expected to be sent to every household that has been asked to fill out a questionnaire but has not done so, and, for the first time, you can call toll-free numbers to give responses over the phone. Census workers are expected to make home visits to remote areas — including rural Alaska, parts of northern Maine and some American Indian reservations — to gather census information in person. Households in the rest of the U.S. that do not respond themselves by late April may start receiving visits as early as May from door knockers trained to conduct census interviews and collect responses using smartphones.
Who gets counted in the census?
The Census Bureau includes every person living in the U.S. — regardless of citizenship or immigration status. International visitors on vacation or work trips to the U.S. during the census are not included. Residents are counted at the address where they usually live and sleep. The Census Bureau has a detailed breakdown of how the 2020 census will count deployed troops, college students, incarcerated people, those displaced by natural disasters and other groups in unique living situations.
Because COVID-19 has displaced many college students, the bureau is advising students who have left school but usually live off campus to respond online using their address at school. As for students who usually live in dorms or college-owned fraternity or sorority housing, the bureau says it is working with schools to make sure they get counted and that they should not be counted where they are temporarily staying due to the pandemic.
What questions will the 2020 census ask?
Most of the questions will be similar to what census forms have asked for in recent counts:
- The number of people living or staying in a home on April 1, 2020.
- Whether the home is owned with or without a mortgage or loan, rented or occupied without rent.
- A phone number for a person in the home.
- The name, sex, age, date of birth and race of each person in the home.
- Whether each person is of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin.
- The relationship of each person to a central person in the home.
Notable changes for 2020 include new write-in areas under the race question for the non-Hispanic origins of those who identify as white and/or black ("German" and "Jamaican" are among the provided examples). There are also new household relationship categories that allow couples living together to identify their relationships as either "same-sex" or "opposite-sex."
Federal courts have permanently blocked the Trump administration from adding to the 2020 census the question, "Is this person a citizen of the United States?" The Census Bureau, however, continues to include a citizenship question on other forms it asks some U.S. households to complete, including the American Community Survey.
Why was including a citizenship question on the census controversial?
The Trump administration had previously insisted it wanted to add the question because the responses can be used to better enforce protections against discrimination of racial and language minorities through the Voting Rights Act. But a federal judge in New York has rejected that explanation as a "sham justification," and a judge in California wrote that including the question "threatens the very foundation of our democratic system."
A majority of the Supreme Court agreed with the lower courts and kept the question blocked from the census because they found that the administration's reasoning appeared "contrived."
Critics of the question point to Census Bureau research suggesting that asking about citizenship in the current political climate would discourage households with noncitizens from participating in the census. The dozens of states, cities and other groups that sued the administration feared the question could result in an undercount of Latinx people and other communities of color.
While the 2020 census won't include a citizenship question, the administration has directed the Census Bureau to compile government records on citizenship from the Social Security Administration, the Department of Homeland Security and other federal, as well as state, agencies. The bureau is preparing to release anonymized citizenship information based on those records in 2021. President Trump says the information could be used to redraw voting districts in a way that, a GOP strategist concluded, would be "advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites."
Can I refuse to answer a census question?
You can skip questions, submit an incomplete census form, and still be included in the head count. But you can be fined for refusing to answer a census question or intentionally giving a false answer, although the penalty has rarely been enforced in the past. Returning a partially filled questionnaire may result in a follow-up phone call or visit from a census worker.
Are census responses confidential?
Under current federal law, the bureau cannot share census responses identifying individuals with the public or other federal agencies, including immigration authorities and other law enforcement, until 72 years after the information is collected. The Census Bureau, however, can release anonymized census information about specific demographic groups at a level as detailed as a neighborhood.
Can I respond to the census in a language other than English?
While paper forms will only be available in English and Spanish, you can respond online or by phone in Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, French, Haitian Creole, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Tagalog and Vietnamese. The bureau is also providing video and printed guides in 59 non-English languages, as well as a video in American Sign Language.
Why is Hispanic or Latino not a racial category on the census?
The White House's Office of Management and Budget requires the Census Bureau to ask about ethnicity in terms of Hispanic or Latino origin before asking about race. The ordering is designed to capture the racial diversity among people of Hispanic or Latino origin.
A growing number of Latino census participants have been confused by this question format, resulting in "some other race" ranking as the third-largest racial group in census results from 2000 and 2010. The bureau has recommended combining the race and ethnicity questions into one, with "Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish" as an option for both race and ethnicity. But that would require the Trump administration to approve an Obama-era proposal to change the federal standards on race and ethnicity data. So far, OMB has not made public whether that proposal has been approved.
Can I resubmit my household's response to correct a mistake?
If you think you submitted your online response with incorrect or incomplete information, the Census Bureau says you can go back to my2020census.gov to resubmit your information. The bureau's website says it "has procedures in place to resolve duplicate submissions." If you entered the 12-digit "Census ID" that was printed on the letters sent to your home to submit your first online response, you won't be able to use it again, but you can proceed without it by clicking on a link that says: "If you do not have a Census ID, click here."
How do I apply for a census job?
Applications for the half-million temporary census positions, including door knockers and outreach specialists, must be submitted online. You can find more information on the bureau's recruitment website.
When will the 2020 census results be released?
The Census Bureau is expected to announce the new population counts by Dec. 31, 2020. That's the bureau's deadline for sending to the president numbers for the reapportionment of congressional seats, which goes into effect beginning with the 2022 elections. 2020 census data used for state and local redistricting are set to be released by March 31, 2021. The bureau is planning to release other new census data beginning in spring 2021.
More questions and answers can be found in the Reddit AMA on the 2020 census that Hansi Lo Wang did in February 2019. You can email your questions about the 2020 census to firstname.lastname@example.org.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Mark your calendars. One year from today, the entire United States will be able to take part in a once-in-a-decade tradition - a headcount of every person living in the country. The numbers from the 2020 census will shape how political power and federal funding are shared over the next 10 years. But there are plenty of challenges to an accurate count, including a Supreme Court battle. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang covers all things census related and joins us now in the studio.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: The 2020 census is going to be different. Right?
WANG: This is going to be a little different. This is going to be the first census in the U.S. to allow all households to either respond online, return a paper form or call a 1-800 number. The Census Bureau is also more than doubling the number of languages you can respond to the census in compared to 2010. New languages include Arabic, Tagalog, Polish, French, Haitian Creole, Portuguese and Japanese.
And there's a change to the race question - really interesting. If you identify as white, you'll be asked to write in your non-Hispanic origins, like German or Irish. Or if you identify as black, you're going to be asked to write in origins like Jamaican or Nigerian. And really important to remember - why do all of these details matter?
MARTIN: Right. Why do we care about the census, Hansi?
WANG: ...This is about everyone getting their fair share based on how many people are living in the country. This is about how we distribute congressional seats and Electoral College votes around this country, to each state. And also, it guides federal funding. More than $800 billion a year is estimated to - for local services, for local communities is distributed based on census numbers.
MARTIN: OK. That matters. But - interesting. They're trying to increase access - right? - to get an accurate count. I know, though, that there has been a looming debate over whether or not to include a citizenship question. You've been following that legal dispute. Where do things stand?
WANG: Two federal judges have ruled to block these plans the Trump administration wants to enact. This is a question that asks - is this person a citizen of the United States? And whether or not it will stay or go, right now it's going to be a final word - we're waiting for final word from the Supreme Court. They're hearing oral arguments on April 23.
And the federal judges that have ruled so far - one in New York, one in California - they've ruled that it violates administrative law to add this question. And a judge in California has ruled that it's unconstitutional to add this question because it harms the ability of the federal government to count every person in the country, as the Constitution requires.
MARTIN: Right. So you mentioned that part of these changes to make it more accessible is to allow people to fill out responses online. Of course, we live in a time where there are all kinds of talk about cybersecurity threats. Is that an issue here?
WANG: That is certainly an issue. The Census Bureau is really concerned about this. And so they are preparing for, you know, at any given time, more than 100,000 users on the Census Bureau's website that will be launched next year for people to respond online. And so right now, they're working very hard to try to build up the IT infrastructure to try to prevent that website from crashing, to prevent people from hacking the information - want to keep that census data confidential.
There's also concern about, you know, disinformation campaigns. This is going to be the first social media census, if you will, and also taking place during the presidential race.
MARTIN: So you mentioned all these outstanding questions about the 2020 census. It's real close, though. And it takes a long time to print a census, doesn't it?
WANG: It is very close. You know, one of the most urgent deadline is June. And last week, a Census Bureau official Al Fontenot, he emphasized that the - there's a printing company. They've got two versions of the census form - one with the citizenship question, one without. Let's listen to what he said.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
AL FONTENOT: The printer knows that when the Supreme Court decision is made, we give them the go to start the process with the set of plates they're ready to use.
WANG: Bureau says the printing has to start in June - in July, rather.
MARTIN: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang covering the 2020 census for us. Thanks, Hansi.
WANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.