Online option recommended for census due to COVID-19 concerns

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Whatcom County residents can now complete the census after the U.S. Census Bureau opened the nationwide survey on March 12. The 2020 census marks the first time that people can respond to the 10-minute survey online, an option that census workers are encouraging to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The census can also be completed by phone or mail, two other virus-safe response methods.

Mail invitations with information on responding to the mandatory census were expected to be delivered to Whatcom County residents between March 12 and 20. As a social distancing measure, people are encouraged to self-respond to the census before May, when census workers plan to begin knocking on household doors.

“As of now, that continues to be our plan,” said Census Bureau spokesperson Toby Nelson. “We are monitoring the situation. If necessary, in areas with an acute outbreak, we could modify our follow-up operation to be by telephone as opposed to door-knocking.”

The planned completion date for the census is July 31 but that date may change depending on how the coronavirus pandemic evolves, Nelson said.

Census workers had initially planned to count people experiencing housing insecurity on March 30, March 31 and April 1. That group includes people staying at shelters, using soup kitchens and sleeping in parks. That operation has now been rescheduled to April 29, April 30 and May 1, Nelson said.

Census workers had also planned to visit shared housing facilities such as college dorms, nursing homes, prisons and military barracks. People living in these places can’t self-report because they live in group housing. In order to minimize in-person contact, the bureau is asking each facility’s administrator to complete special online forms or paper forms.

Sara Bernardy, census coordinator for the Whatcom Council of Governments, said her department is relying heavily on social media to remind people about the census as it halts public events and transitions to online staff meetings.

Before the outbreak of the new coronavirus, independent organizations in Whatcom County had planned to assist senior citizens, people with language barriers and others with Questionnaire Assistance Centers or QACs. The centers, including those affiliated with the Whatcom County Library System, have now been shut down, said Summer Starr, volunteer and event coordinator with the Opportunity Council. Starr said that if people need assistance in responding to the census, the best thing to do is to call the toll-free numbers for English or many other languages, which are listed online at 2020census.gov.

The census is mandated once per decade by the U.S. Constitution for the federal government to conduct an accurate population count. Data from the non-partisan survey is then used to appropriate seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. This gave Washington an extra seat in Congress after the 2010 census.

Census data also informs how $650 billion per year in federal funds are spent locally. This includes transportation grants, funding for school lunch programs, aid to families with dependent children and health care services.

Children under age five were the largest population undercounted nationwide during the last census. This impacts the first 10 years of a child’s life because underprepared schools affect a child’s education, Bernardy said.

Washington received $16 billion in 2016 through 55 federal spending programs guided by data derived from the 2010 census, according to research by the George Washington Institute of Public Policy. The largest sums went to the Medical Assistance Program (Medicaid), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Federal Direct Student Loans.

People are required to disclose where they will be living on April 1, regardless of when they fill out the census. Specifically, they should state their usual residence on April 1, not wherever they happen to be on that date, Nelson said.

The 10-question census asks the number of people living in one household and those people’s names, races, sexes and dates of birth. One person can complete a census form for everyone living in their household, including family members, roommates and renters.

No citizenship question is asked on the 2020 census. The census will also never ask for your social security number, political affiliation or bank account information. Census workers will always have a valid ID badge with their photo, a U.S. Department of Commerce watermark and an expiration date, according to the Census Bureau.

“It’s ten minutes, ten questions, every ten years,” Bernardy said. “It’s only one shot during the 10-year period. We need to make sure we’re counted.”

The census can be taken online at my2020census.gov. More information on who to count can be found at 2020census.gov/en/who-to-count. Information on avoiding census scams can also be found online at the Census Bureau’s website, census.gov.

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