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Census 2020 explained

Here’s what you need to know about changes to America’s decennial census, what’s at stake and why we do it in the first place.

February 13, 2020

By Cory Phare

Every 10 years since 1790, the United States counts the number of people who live here. It’s mandated by Article I, Section II of the Constitution.

But the 2020 census is more than an archaic exercise in accounting – it’s a critical component of civic engagement with far-ranging implications for our nation and Colorado.

Recognizing the once-a-decade significance, the state legislature last year established grants for organizations to conduct census outreach to engage Coloradans who are traditionally hard to count, such as those in rural communities, housing-insecure people and immigrant communities. In advance of the April 1 Census Day, Metropolitan State University of Denver, a recipient of one of the state’s outreach grants, is preparing a team of 17 student employees to go out into their communities to make sure every Coloradan is counted.

America’s decennial census has a large impact on our state and communities, yet there are many misunderstandings for the state’s outreach efforts to tackle, said MSU Denver President Janine Davidson, Ph.D.

“People aren’t always aware to the extent the federal government touches their lives,” she said. “They might think it doesn’t affect them, without understanding how many businesses and services rely upon the funding tied to (census data).”


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The census affects everything in our lives – including health care, transportation, education, law enforcement and agriculture – said state Rep. Kerry Tipper (D-Jefferson County), author of HB19-1239, the bipartisan 2019 bill that established the census-outreach grants.

For instance, 2010 census data guided more than $13 billion in federal spending, including financial assistance and tax-credit programs, she said. It’s anticipated that Colorado’s booming population might net it another seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and additional electoral vote starting in 2024's general election.

“A 1% undercount of the census represents a huge sum of money – we’re literally talking hundreds of millions of dollars left on the table if that happens,” she said.

 

Building reciprocal trust

Public trust in government plunged to historic lows in 2019, according to the Pew Research Center, adding urgency to this year’s efforts to engage underserved Colorado populations about what the census is – and isn’t.

“A lot of it involves meeting folks where they’re at with their understanding of the census,” said Ikaika Gleisberg, assistant professor with the University’s Gender Institute for Teaching and Advocacy and faculty coordinator for the outreach effort. “We can help them open up, unpack ideas and notions they have about the census, then provide useful, updated information.”

For instance, MSU Denver student canvassers will be reaching out on-campus and with community partners to explain that the 2020 census can now be completed online, Gleisberg said.

To that end, a critical component of the University’s outreach efforts involves sending students from underserved populations that Colorado wants to count to canvas those communities, Gleisberg said.

“It’s as much about building reciprocal trust in and among those communities as it is about accomplishing the goal (of census participation),” Gleisberg said.


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An accurate census count can help mitigate systemic challenges faced by underrepresented Colorado communities, including the LGBTQ+ community, said Cardinal Tomczyk, a senior individualized-degree-program and Honors Program student involved in the University’s outreach effort.

“We live in concerning times, but this is something we can – and need to – put our faith in,” she said.

For instance, the census presents an opportunity to “nudge” the survey’s fields to be more reflective – and fluid.

One specific example is the binary options of male and female; if respondents don’t fit neatly into those boxes, she recommends they check both or annotate options alongside a response.

“We need to take the census so we can improve the census,” Tomczyk said. “Trans folks are saying, ‘I need a box – and a bathroom.’ Filling out the census is a way to advocate for both.”

Cardinal Tomczyk, a senior individualized-degree-program and Honors Program student, is involved with MSU Denver
Cardinal Tomczyk, a senior individualized-degree-program and Honors Program student, is involved with MSU Denver's census outreach effort. Photo by Sara Hertwig.

A careful count

Learn more about Census 2020

To make sure Coloradans understand Census 2020 along with the count’s history and politics, Rob Preuhs, professor and chair of MSU Denver’s political science department, is taking his expertise on the road in a series of chats being held at Denver Public Libraries around the city. Here’s where you can catch “The Big Count: The Politics of the 2020 Census”

Thurs., Feb. 20, 2020 | 3 – 4 p.m.
Ross-University Hills Branch Library

Mon. March 2, 2020 | 6-7 p.m.
Central Library

Tues. March 31, 2020 | 6:30 – 7:30 p.m.
Woodbury Branch Library

 

The U.S. Constitution mandates only a population census. So why are so many more fields such as race, gender and age included?

It turns out that it’s all part of the “Great Compromise” that created America’s bicameral legislature, said Rob Preuhs, professor and chair of MSU Denver’s political science department.

“Small states that were worried about losing power resulted in the Senate’s two-seat representation, while the House of Representatives is based on population numbers,” he said.

Saddled by the Constitution with the requirement to conduct the nation’s first head count, America’s First Federal Congress added inquiries to the 1790 census on gender, race, relationship to the head of household, name of the head of household and number of slaves, if any, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.


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Then as now, the conversation around what those fields asked was an ongoing matter of debate, Preuhs said.

“It’s evolved over the years,” he said. “Fields change, depending on the political winds of the time.”

Preuhs noted expansion of the racial category to reflect or anticipate immigration patterns – such as the addition of a Chinese option in 1870 and “Hispanic” in 1970.

But the data used to ensure reflective representation can also be used to frame racist and reactionary policies such 1882’s Chinese Exclusion Act. More recently, critics charged that the Trump administration’s proposal to ask a citizenship question on the 2020 census was politically motivated and would lead to fewer immigrant households taking part. A March 2019 study by the Harvard Kennedy School found that the question could lead to census-takers missing between 3.9 million and 4.6 million Latinos nationwide – or between 7.7% and 9.1% of the Latino population recorded in the last U.S. census, in 2010. The question was ultimately blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court last June.

“There’s definitely an element of concern connected to theracialized politics of our history; it’s important to understand thatbackstory,” Preuhs said.


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That backstory is offset by measures to ensure that census data isn’t used for marginalizing purposes. The U.S. Census Bureau takes a lifetime oath of confidentiality, keeping records sealed for 72 years – approximately a person’s lifespan. There are serious federal consequences for breaching that anonymity. And none of the survey information that identifies an individual or business is disclosed, including interagency communication within the government.

“In other words, the president, the FBI, Homeland Security and any other government agency will not obtain this information,” MSU Denver’s Gleisberg said.

Census books like this one are integral training tools in the outreach effort that 17 MSU Denver students will be doing as part of community outreach over the course of 2020. Ensuring an accurate count will likely mean an additional House of Representative seat and electoral vote in future elections. Photo by Olga Sago
Census books like this one are integral training tools in the outreach effort that 17 MSU Denver students will be doing as part of community outreach over the course of 2020. Ensuring an accurate count will likely mean an additional House of Representative seat and electoral vote in future elections. Photo by Olga Sago

Another reassurance? Working respondent data is aggregate down to the neighborhood level, not individually identifying.

Discussing the census’ history and illuminating its modern safeguards are among the top charges of the MSU Denver student employees hitting the metro-Denver streets.

And the stakes couldn’t be higher, Gleisberg said.

“Census counts have a direct impact on how we provide holistic support services – like SNAP, WIC, housing, access to medical infrastructure, child care and more,” Gleisberg said. “Because we serve underrepresented groups, it’s vital to ensure that our students and their communities have a voice. That’s what the census is for.”


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