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Monday, March 2, 2020

Get ready for the census!

by Beth Cronk, Litchfield head librarian

The U.S. Constitution directs the federal government to conduct a census every ten years, which it has done since 1790 when George Washington was president.  This year it’s time to do the census again, and it is our civic duty to fill it out.  

It also helps us and our communities when we fill it out.  Minnesota is at risk of losing a Representative to Congress, especially if we’re undercounted because people who live here don’t fill out the census.  Funding for so many things depends on an accurate count: highways, Medicare, student loans and grants, school lunches, Head Start, USDA business loans, and countless other things.  It’s your own tax money coming back to your own community, and one uncounted person could mean a loss of $28,000 in funding over the next ten years.  Businesses look at population data when deciding where to open a location, so it’s good for community development if everyone is counted. 

 There are both new and familiar things about how the census will work this year, and libraries are partnering with the Census Bureau to help you get the information you need about the process.
The first thing I think you need to know is the timeline for this.  Mailings will start going out on March 12, so it will begin soon. April 1 is considered Census Day; by that date, you should have gotten mail that directs you to fill out the census, unless you get your mail at a post office box.  Whether you fill out your census before, on, or after that day, you should base your answers on where you live on April 1; if you’re a snowbird, use the address where you live for more than six months of the year.  Between May and July, census workers will visit the homes of people who have not yet filled out their census another way.

The big change this year is that the census can be done online.  You will get a mailing with a code that you can use to fill out the form online at the website.  If you would like to fill out the census online but you don’t have internet access, you can come to a public library to use a computer.  All four libraries in Meeker County (Litchfield, Dassel, Grove City, and Cosmos) are registered to be Questionnaire Assistance Centers, which means that our staff will have gone through basic training to  help you and that we have public computers available for you to use to complete your form.

If you don’t feel comfortable filling out your census online, you have options.  You will be able to request a printed form or a visit from a census employee if you would prefer that.  You will be able to call the official census number to give your answers over the phone.  If you wait a few weeks without filling it out online, a paper form will automatically be mailed to you (again, only if you get your mail at home instead of at a PO box).  And if you don’t fill it out either online or by mail, a census worker will visit you in May or later, just like census workers visited your great-grandparents, if they lived in the United States back then. 

Be careful to check that the website you go to is a .gov address, so that it’s legitimate.  You will not get an email asking you to fill out the census, so don’t follow links in any emails that claim to be from the census.  The Census Bureau will not call you to ask you to fill out the census, although they may call you to follow up on questions you didn’t answer.  Look carefully at the printed form you get to be sure it’s really the census.  And look at the badge that a census worker is wearing if they visit your home.  If you want to confirm that someone who comes to your door is a local census worker, you can call 800-923-8282 to check.

The Census Bureau will never ask for your Social Security number, your bank account or credit card numbers, money, or donations.  They will not ask anything about your political views or include information about a political party. 

There will not be a long form for the census this year, so you will not get a long list of detailed questions.  Everyone will get about ten simple questions about their address, the names of people who live in their home, their relationships to the person filling it out, their ages, and their race and ethnicity.  There is not a citizenship question on the census, and it is up to you to answer the questions as you choose and even to skip some, although skipping questions will likely lead to a census employee following up with you. 

The individual information you enter on the census is protected data.  The Census Bureau cannot share those details with anyone, even other parts of the federal government, for 72 years.  In 72 years, or 172 years, your descendants may be grateful for the details about you that they can access.  In the meantime, no one can see it. 

I’ve been through several trainings about this year’s census, and I’ve met with the committee that’s working to get a complete count of Meeker County.  I am not a census employee, and the rest of the library staff are not either.  But we will be glad to help you find the information you need about the census, even if sometimes that’s just finding the best way to put you in touch with the experts at the census helpline. 

I know it can be scary to share your personal information, and that it can be intimidating to know how to fill out the census.  But it is essential to our community, and you can fill it out in the way you prefer.  Stop in to talk to me at the library if you have questions.  Everyone counts!