Giving Thought: The 2020 census is coming, but will it be complete?

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Tamara Tormohlen
Steve Mundinger

Not many of us pay close attention to the census. However, the decennial nationwide headcount shapes many different aspects of our community from health clinics to schools, fire departments to roads and bridges. And, because the census determines the flow of federal dollars into local communities, governments, businesses and nonprofits are banding together from Aspen to Parachute to encourage participation and ensure the 2020 count is as accurate and complete as possible.

“An accurate census is critically important to nonprofit, business and government entities all over the country,” said Phillip Supino, long-range planner for the city of Aspen and head of the Aspen to Parachute Complete Count Committee, the local community-led effort. “Organizations of all kinds make critical budgetary and strategic decisions based on census data.”

Local governments have always been involved in the census, but widespread fears of an undercount in 2020 have triggered more local and regional assistance in the traditionally federal effort.

First, there is a funding issue. Congress has refused to provide the Census Bureau’s budget requests over the past few years, forcing the Bureau to reduce its staffing, training, equipment and technology spending.

Second, the typically apolitical population count has been burdened by a proposed question asking respondents about their citizenship. The disputed question has been scrapped, but concerns remain that the highly charged politics of immigration may negatively impact the census.

“Given the level of discourse at the national level, and the ugliness of federal immigration policy, Latinos and immigrants may be less inclined to participate,” said Alex Sanchez, executive director of Valley Settlement in Carbondale and a co-chair of the Complete Count Committee.

The goal of the census is to count all residents of the U.S., not just citizens. But the specter of federal authorities knocking on the door and asking for information is a scary proposition for many, especially immigrants. Latinos must first feel safe and secure replying to the census, Sanchez says, before they can really consider the potential benefits of doing so.

The benefits of a complete count are significant. As Supino put it, “For every Colorado resident counted in the census, state and local governments receive approximately $2,300 annually.” That means money to support schools, roads, libraries, law enforcement and many other public services.

Additionally, Colorado is likely to gain an additional seat in Congress as a result of the upcoming count. If the rapidly growing state receives an eighth seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, then that means a bigger voice for the state in federal decision making.

The Aspen to Parachute Complete Count Committee is working to secure a $150,000 grant from the state’s Department of Local Affairs that will strengthen local efforts to bolster participation in the census. Aspen Community Foundation is providing assistance to the committee for this request.

Traditionally the census has involved vast numbers of paper forms but in 2020, for the first time, respondents will have the option to fill out an online form or answer questions over the phone. By providing these choices, including the traditional paper format, the census Bureau hopes to avoid the need to track down too many people in person.

One of the key messages from members of the Complete Count Committee, Supino says, is this: “The only way to ensure a Census Bureau worker does not knock on your door is to fill out the form on your own.”

From January through March 2020, people can fill out the online form. Census Day, April 1, kicks off the door-to-door phase. By that date, residents at a given address who have not responded will begin receiving additional postcards and/or reminders as well as visits by official census takers. In other words, everyone should have multiple opportunities to be counted. Please remember that a complete count is a good thing for our communities.

“If you care about your neighbors, where your kids go to school and the quality of services and infrastructure provided by your local government, then you should fill out that census form,” Supino says. “If you care about your elected officials and receiving proper representation in government, then you should fill out that census form.”

The Aspen to Parachute Complete Count Committee meets the third Wednesday of the month at Third Street Center in Carbondale.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.