Updated July 18 at 3:53 p.m. ET
The federal government is getting ready to ask some personal questions for the 2020 census. By next April 1, the Census Bureau plans to send a letter or a door knocker to every U.S. household. It's part of a once-a-decade tradition of counting every person living in the U.S.
Each national head count usually comes with a rash of confusion. The 2020 census will be the first in the U.S. since the rise of social media. The government has already begun preparing to combat disinformation campaigns that may try to disrupt the count, which is rolling out during what's expected to be a heated presidential race.
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.
Why is the census important?
The census is required by the Constitution, which has called 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 $880 billion a year in federal funding is distributed for 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.
When does the 2020 census officially start?
The head count is set to officially begin on Jan. 21, in Toksook Bay, Alaska — more than two months before Census Day (April 1), which is a reference date. Most households can start participating around mid-March, when letters with instructions are scheduled to be sent to 95 percent of homes around the country.
How is the census taken?
The 2020 count will be the first one to allow all U.S. households to respond online. Paper forms will still be available, and, for the first time, you can call 1-800 numbers to give responses over the phone. Census workers will 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 early April may start receiving visits 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.
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, 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."
In July, federal courts 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; census forms for American Samoa, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands; and the 2019 Census Test, which is collecting responses through Aug. 15.
Why was including a citizenship question on the census controversial?
The Trump administration has previously insisted it wants to add the question because the responses can be used to better enforce Voting Rights Act protections against discrimination of racial and language minorities. 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 will discourage households with noncitizens from participating in the census. The dozens of states, cities and other groups suing the administration fear that 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 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 been enforced rarely in the past. Returning a partially filled-out 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.
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. 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.