As federal census preparations intensify in Island County, researchers emphasize the historical significance of the population count. And, baby boomers have to wait a little longer to see their names on a census report.
The 2020 decennial census is the first time people can respond online. National Census Day officially is April 1. But work is already underway, and the first invitations to respond will be mailed March 12.
The census is deeply rooted in history, according to archivist Cassie Rittierodt of Island County Historical Museum. Drawing on pre-biblical census practice, the United States established its first count in 1790, directed by then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.
“For historians and researchers, an accurate census is crucial,” said Rittierodt. “It is our primary resource for determining who and where people are, how they might be related and their roles in the community.”
Whidbey Community Foundation is coordinating with nonprofit agencies in Island County to get better responses from groups which are traditionally difficult to reach, such as homeless persons or those with unconventional housing.
“Washington has more than 1.6 million residents from historically hard to count populations, including communities of color, Native Americans on and off tribal lands, immigrants and limited English-speakers, young children and rural residents of all backgrounds,” said Foundation Program Director Jessie Gunn.
To promote a robust and accurate count in the 2020 Census, Whidbey Community Foundation is using a grant from the Washington Census Equity Fund https://philanthropynw.org/washington-census-equity-fund.
Census data are used to reapportion seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, allocate over $800 billion in federal funding for local communities, and give decision-makers information for critical public policy.
“Approximately $13.7 billion dollars in federal funds are at stake for Washington State,” said Gunn. “These funds are used for vital infrastructure and transportation, Medicaid, food assistance, schools and hospitals.”
According to Gunn, a one percent under-count in 2010 would have missed 67,245 people in Washington, with a loss of $2.6 million in federal program assistance derived from the census.
“The census is immensely important. It is an empowering way to tell your community and government that you count. Getting a complete count in Island County will provide an accurate snapshot of our community for the next 10 years. The decennial data will be used to formulate the future by ensuring we have the resources and support needed to thrive.”
Washington conducted a territorial census twice before showing a population large enough to qualify for statehood in 1892, observed genealogy researcher Guy Calkins of Freeland. He said census reports before 1850 made genealogy searching difficult because only heads of households were listed by name.
The census of 1850 showed the first settlers in the Coupeville area. According to Calkins, Native Americans often conducted their own population counts to claim people for tribal membership. Early Island County records show an “I” to designate Indian ethnicity.
Expressing some concern, Gunn said the new online format, a lack of testing and shortage of federal funding for outreach could adversely affect results.
“The online innovations increase the potential to omit residents where housing has changed, to overlook those with less computer literacy or access and to under-count populations which are hard to reach,” she said.
To try to overcome barriers to online access, Whidbey Community Foundation is tracking Census Questionnaire Assistance Centers (QACs), such as those at Sno-Isle libraries and other public locations. These locations are available from www.whidbeyfoundation.org or 360-660-5041.
Gunn pointed out there will not be a “citizenship” question on the 2020 Census. She acknowledged a potential exclusionary view of the question of “sex” because the response can only be male or female.
“We have the capability to conduct the best census in history,” observed Rittierodt. “It’s our sincere hope people can overcome any misgivings and help deliver a complete and accurate census.”
Gunn said self-reporting is the preferred method of responding, either online, by postal mail or phone. “Census workers will only visit a home that has not self-responded. Invitations will contain phone and mail response information,” she noted.
The Census Bureau is hiring thousands of temporary workers at attractively competitive wages. “In particular, the Census Bureau is looking for local residents more likely to be responsive to their own community,” said Gunn. Jobs include census takers, field supervisors, recruiting assistants, clerks and office staff.
Gunn stressed that census information is, by law, kept in strictest confidence. “Census workers are prohibited from sharing any personal or identifying information under penalty of large fines and/or jail time.”
According to the Census web site, “the U.S. Census Bureau takes extraordinary steps to protect the safety and security of responses.”
Gunn pointed out that census information is released only in aggregate form, such as numbers of people or conditions. The National Archives releases census records to the general public 72 years after Census Day. That means the names of those born after World War II will first appear on census records to be released in April 2022.
Forms are available in 13 languages, with assistance for 59 others. Sample forms are on the Census Bureau web site.
The current U.S. population is over 329 million.