Four Common Misconceptions About the 2020 Census

Posted February 19, 2020
Update fourcommonmisconceptionscensus 2020

This year, the U.S. Cen­sus Bureau will com­plete its 24th decen­ni­al cen­sus — an effort that aims to count every per­son in the coun­try. The nation­wide sur­vey, which is accept­ing house­hold respons­es through July 31, 2020, is an impor­tant tool that lead­ers and orga­ni­za­tions — includ­ing the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion — use to allo­cate funds, assess progress, plan for the future, make polit­i­cal deci­sions and improve the lives of kids and families.

In this post, Flo­ren­cia Gutier­rez, a senior research asso­ciate at the Casey Foun­da­tion, sep­a­rates fact from fic­tion and address­es four com­mon mis­con­cep­tions that peo­ple have about this vital pub­lic plan­ning tool.

Myth 1. The gov­ern­ment is track­ing who is — and who isn’t — a U.S. citizen.

Let’s cut to the chase: The cen­sus form will not ask res­i­dents about their cit­i­zen­ship sta­tus,” Gutier­rez says.

Here’s where the con­fu­sion lies: In March 2019, the U.S. Depart­ment of Com­merce announced that it was adding a cit­i­zen­ship ques­tion to the 2020 cen­sus. The issue took more than a year to resolve — gar­ner­ing plen­ty of press cov­er­age along the way — and end­ed up in the Supreme Court, which ulti­mate­ly ruled against adding the ques­tion. Clar­i­fy­ing this detail is crit­i­cal,” says Gutier­rez, because peo­ple might avoid par­tic­i­pat­ing in the cen­sus out of fear that their cit­i­zen­ship sta­tus could be used against them.”

Myth 2. I’ll just fill out the form on behalf of my fam­i­ly. Easy peasy.

Not so fast, warns Gutier­rez. Often­times, the per­son com­plet­ing the cen­sus lim­its their house­hold count to imme­di­ate fam­i­ly mem­bers. But the cor­rect count cov­ers any­one and every­one liv­ing in the house­hold — includ­ing couch-surfers, dis­tant rel­a­tives, non­rel­a­tives and kids of all ages.

Young chil­dren, espe­cial­ly babies and tod­dlers, are the most like­ly to be left off the form. This is far from ide­al,” Gutier­rez says. When a child goes uncount­ed, you miss out on oppor­tu­ni­ties — as a com­mu­ni­ty — to plan for that child’s future.”

Myth 3. I don’t want my answers shared with oth­er gov­ern­ment agencies.

Good news! The U.S. Cen­sus Bureau has a crys­tal-clear stance on man­ag­ing the data it col­lects from indi­vid­u­als and busi­ness­es. It nev­er dish­es out iden­ti­fi­able infor­ma­tion — not even to oth­er fed­er­al depart­ments and agen­cies. Title 13 of the Unit­ed States Code requires cen­sus respons­es to be kept con­fi­den­tial and used for sta­tis­ti­cal pur­pos­es only,” says Gutier­rez. In fact, unlaw­ful dis­clo­sure is a fed­er­al crime pun­ish­able by a $250,000 fine or five years in prison — or both.”

Myth 4. It’s just paperwork.

Maybe. But think of it as real­ly, real­ly, real­ly impor­tant paper­work. The cen­sus data are used to dis­trib­ute about $1.5 tril­lion in fed­er­al funds to the states. They are also used to deter­mine the num­ber of seats each state receives in the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and for plan­ning pur­pos­es, such as where schools, libraries and hos­pi­tals go,” Gutier­rez explains. A cor­rect cen­sus count ensures that com­mu­ni­ties will receive the resources and rep­re­sen­ta­tion they need — and that fam­i­lies will receive the sup­ports and ser­vices they need.”

The decen­ni­al cen­sus is also the government’s best tool for deter­min­ing how many peo­ple are liv­ing in the Unit­ed States. Oth­er major fed­er­al sur­veys — includ­ing the Cur­rent Pop­u­la­tion Sur­vey and the Amer­i­can Com­mu­ni­ty Sur­vey — rely on cen­sus data to make future esti­mates based on sur­vey data more accu­rate. This is also true for the Foundation’s KIDS COUNT Data Cen­ter and our annu­al KIDS COUNT Data Book,” says Gutier­rez. If the decen­ni­al data are deeply flawed, our analy­sis won’t rep­re­sent what is real­ly hap­pen­ing with kids and fam­i­lies. And this is exact­ly the sce­nario we are work­ing hard to prevent.”

Read more about count­ing all kids in the 2020 cen­sus and why it matters.

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