A complete, accurate count of every person in the United States is essential for not only the country as a whole, but right here in Norfolk and Madison County.
That was the message of Jerry Hernandez, an official with the U.S. Census Bureau, which is starting to gear up for the decennial count. Hernandez was in Norfolk on Friday for the monthly Unlimited Potential luncheon hosted by the Norfolk Area Chamber of Commerce.
The U.S. Census is required by the Constitution to get a head count of every person in the country every 10 years, including noncitizens.
Hernandez said that not only does the census fulfill a constitutional mandate and determine federal representation among the states, but the numbers figured by the U.S. Census Bureau also determine where and how much federal funds are funneled into states and communities like Norfolk.
“At least $675 billion was allocated to state and local communities (in 2015) based on the census numbers,” Hernandez said. “The impact of the 2020 census will be felt for the next 10 years.”
Hernandez said that it is up to individual communities and counties to ensure an accurate count is made; the census bureau will follow up if it doesn’t receive responses or can’t compel people to respond.
And an accurate account is also essential, because until the next count in 2030, the census will be reliant on the responses obtained in 2020, even if they may not be entirely accurate.
“Our dollars are our responsibility,” Hernandez said. “If there’s a low response rate, we really only have ourselves to blame. We’re stuck with those numbers for the next 10 years.”
The bureau also can’t use any of its taxpayer money to directly market to people. Hernandez said the bureau must make partnerships within the community to spread the word about the census.
That means businesses, local government and various organizations in the community must take steps to help promote the census and increase response rates.
Several local officials, including the mayor, have formed a Complete Count Committee to help coordinate efforts to promote the census.
Hernandez said the nonresponse rate is as high as 20% in some areas in Norfolk.
“While it may not seem like much, when you figure the amount of money that each person represents and add that up, that’s millions of dollars lost,” Hernandez said. “It’s all based on population for federal funding.”
Two populations in particular tend to have low response rates and are difficult to track: immigrants and low-income people.
Those groups of people tend to be distrustful of the government, Hernandez said, and their distrust may in some cases be justified. But the census bureau can be trusted completely, he said, as it is independent of any other government agency. The numbers and information are not turned over to any other part of the government, including law enforcement.
“The first thing I hear is, ‘I don’t trust the government,’ ” Hernandez said. “But the law says we must protect our information. We are strictly focused on counting people and where they are, and that’s it. ... You don’t have anything to fear. We just want to know how many people are in the United States.”
Census workers must swear to a lifetime oath to protect the information they collect, and breach of that oath is punishable by prison time and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.
Hernandez said sophisticated online security also is being deployed to prevent any information from being stolen.
Hernandez did warn that some scammers do take advantage of the census. He said census officials and workers carry badges and will show them if asked. Census workers will not ask for personal information like Social Security numbers, and no one should give personal information to anyone claiming to be a census worker. Any potential scams should be reported to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The census is collected through three methods: by mail, over the phone and for the first time, online. All residential addresses are mailed a survey that can be mailed back or a code may be entered to conduct the survey online.
Responses will start being collected in mid-March. If a response isn’t received within a month or two at a specific address, census workers will begin to knock on doors.
“If you don’t want people knocking on your door, just take the census,” Hernandez said. “There’s three ways to self-respond but another way where we have to get a response.”
Eventually, all unresponsive households will be contacted and local census offices will begin closing in the summer and early fall. The final count will be delivered to the president on Dec. 31.