What Is It?
Every ten years, Americans fill out the census, which gives us a count of all people living in the United States and their demographics — including things like age, race, gender, income, and which country they were born in.
Census data is a goldmine of information. It influences which counties might get new health clinics, how much money is available for training teachers, and whether a town is ready for a new shopping mall. It also helps the federal government decide how to spend $1.5 trillion each year, and determines which states gain or lose seats in Congress, a process known as reapportionment.
This data extravaganza is run by the U.S. Census Bureau, which actually does a lot more than sending out a once-a-decade survey. For example, the Census Bureau runs the American Community Survey, which goes out every month to a smaller number of people in the U.S. and provides an ongoing picture of how the country is changing. Every five years, the Census Bureau runs the Economic Census, which collects information about American businesses in order to better understand the economy.
In April 2020, the Census Bureau launched the Household Pulse Survey to find out how the Covid-19 pandemic was affecting Americans across the country. It included questions about employment, health, household spending, and whether Americans have enough food.
Name check: The Census Bureau is a federal agency, a government-y word for department. There are dozens of agencies and departments, many of which you’re probably familiar with, like the Department of Education or the U.S. Postal Service.
Why It Matters to You
Lots of people rely on data from the Census Bureau to make decisions that impact your life. The federal government, state and local governments, businesses, nonprofit organizations – they all use census information to plan for the future.
Census Bureau data helps federal, state, and local governments decide things like:
- How many seats in Congress each state should have, based on population.
- How many school children need free or reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program (currently, it’s tens of millions of kids).
- How much funding to give high schools and community colleges across the country for vocational training programs.
- Which communities are going to need new schools and libraries.
- How much money we’ll need to provide health insurance to low-income people (through Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program) and seniors (through Medicare).
This information is important to people outside the government, too:
- Health care companies use it to plan where to build or expand hospitals and clinics.
- Retail chains use it to figure out where they should open new stores.
- Homebuilders use it to estimate which neighborhoods are popular with young families that need extra bedrooms, or which communities attract people looking for low-cost apartments.
- Companies use it to decide whether to expand and create new jobs in a town, city, or state.
How to Make an Impact
I’d Like to Comment on That
Federal agencies issue all kinds of rules related to how they do their jobs. They don’t get to just make stuff up though – they have to give the public a chance to comment. The Census Bureau is a federal agency, which means that if they want to make a significant change to how they operate, Americans will get to weigh in. Companies, advocacy groups, state and local governments, and experts submit comments all the time, and you can too.
If you want to support or oppose a rule that a federal agency is considering, call, write, or meet with the person who represents you at the federal level: your member of Congress. Encourage them to submit their own public comment, put out a press release, schedule a meeting with the agency, or push for a hearing.
Hello, All My Other Elected Officials?
If a proposed rule is going to affect you, it’s probably going to affect a lot of other people in your community, too. That means you should reach out to your other elected officials – your governor, state senator, state assembly member, city council member – and ask them to submit comments, too. And since those people are probably on a first-name basis with your member of Congress, ask them to add their voice to the chorus.
See You in Court
That’s right, you can sue the government. While you probably won’t file a lawsuit on your own, advocacy organizations, states, and local governments sue the federal government all the time. If you want your state or local government to get involved in blocking a proposed rule, tell them. Or, look for an advocacy organization that works on the issue you care about.
On the Ground
People like you are having an impact across the country every day. Here are a few times people tried to change things at the Census Bureau:
- In 2017, the Trump Administration began an effort to add a new question to the census, one asking whether the person filling out the form was a U.S. citizen. Dozens of advocacy organizations, states, and cities filed lawsuits and submitted public comments to kill the citizenship question. They argued that it would make non-citizens afraid to complete the census, resulting in less accurate data. Meanwhile, a majority of Americans told pollsters they supported adding the question.
- Getting an accurate census count in rural communities can be tough, since people live and work farther apart from one another and some places require four-wheel drive to get to. In rural Colorado, an army of volunteers, nonprofit groups, and elected officials put in the hours to reach folks in the backcountry.
- Michigan environmental activists used census data as ammunition in their fight to shut down a power facility that they said burdened an African-American neighborhood in Detroit.
- LGBTQ advocacy groups have campaigned for years to get the Census Bureau to include a question on the once-a-decade census asking about sexual orientation and gender identity. They were unsuccessful for the 2020 census, and at least one group asked Congress to hold a hearing on the matter.
- Black people have long been undercounted by the census. In the 1970s, a group of advocates started the Make Black Count initiative to solve the problem, and the National Urban League brought that effort back when it worried about Black census participation during the COVID-19 pandemic.