Local officials gear up for census
And this whole process is not aided by the generalized mistrust of government that’s out there these days. I think there’s a great deal of suspicious on how Census data could possibly used in nefarious ways.
— Chris English
MIDDLEBURY — Local, state and federal officials are working hard to maximize public participation in what since 1790 has become a decennial ritual in the United States — the federal census. It’s an exercise designed to yield key demographic information that will help determine the amount of aid communities receive and how they are represented in government.
Mandated by Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution, the federal census used to be extremely labor intensive and fraught with paperwork. As has been the case for decades, people can still fulfill their census responsibilities through a hard copy questionnaire or by phone. But this year, for the first time, respondents have the option of completing the census online.
And U.S. Census officials are hoping that online option increases the response rates — which haven’t been stellar, particularly in rural areas like Addison County.
Representatives of the U.S. Census Bureau’s New York regional office last spring reached out to Middlebury Assistant Town Manager Chris English and other Addison County officials about ways to promote census compliance among area residents.
“Middlebury and the surrounding communities in Addison County are areas that are frequently under-counted,” English said. “It’s not so much the fact that people don’t take the census at all, it’s that they’re not prone to self-respond… Folks in this area, for a variety of reasons, tend to not self-report. Which means the Census Bureau has to send out (counters) and multiple notices to remind you that the census is going on and needs to be completed by a certain date.
“It’s a challenge getting the word out,” he added. “And this whole process is not aided by the generalized mistrust of government that’s out there these days. I think there’s a great deal of suspicion on how Census data could possibly used in nefarious ways.”
Local officials last September formed the 10-member “Middlebury/Addison County Complete Count Committee.” It includes Ilsley Public Library Director Dana Hart, United Way of Addison County Director Helena Van Voorst, as well as representatives from the Counseling Service of Addison County, John Graham Housing & Services, and the Charter House Coalition. The composition of the committee reflects the importance of reaching out to society’s most vulnerable and underprivileged individuals, who might find it particularly challenging to respond to the census due to the lack of a computer, telephone or even a home.
Meanwhile, Ashley Laux, program director for Middlebury College’s Center for Community Engagement, is coordinating the census public awareness campaign on campus.
The role of a complete count committee, English explained, is to raise awareness among the community about the 2020 Census and the fact that it is almost upon us. And to motivate people to respond to it.
That will involve explaining census requirements, deadlines and ways to make the reporting as easy as possible. Residents can expect to receive multiple reminders from the U.S. Census Bureau, which will reinforce important upcoming dates, such as April 1, by which time every home will have received an invitation to participate in the census. Once the invitation arrives, folks are encouraged to respond online, by phone or by mail.
Respondents will be asked a handful of questions about the name, age, date of birth, gender, race, residency details (house, apartment or mobile home) and family relationship of each residents in the household.
People won’t be asked for such personal information as their Social Security number, political affiliation or bank/credit card numbers.
“The U.S. Department of Commerce is enjoined by law from sharing the census data with any other government agency,” English said. “The census data stands as an island unto itself and can’t be used for other purposes. That all said, it’s still a tough sell.”
Folks who don’t respond by early April can expect a visit this spring or early summer from “enumerators” — a fancy term for duly appointed folks with clipboards who will knock on your door and offer their help in collating and sending the necessary data.
New technology is expected to help drive up participation counts for the 2020 Census. Along with the online response option, the bureau has new software that will allow counters to track “on a near daily basis, the response rate in specific geographies like Addison County,” English said. “Theoretically, we could see where we stand in total response rate and give us the flexibility to target specific areas where they’re not responding.”
TAKING PART MATTERS
If you think your information doesn’t matter for the 2020 Census, think again.
Along with being a federal mandate, the census provides “critical data that lawmakers, business owners, teachers and many others use to provide daily services, products and support for you and your community,” according to the 2020census.gov website. “Every year, billions of dollars in federal funding go to hospitals, fire departments, schools, roads and other resources based on census data.
“The results of the census also determine the number of seats each state will have in the U.S. House of Representatives, and they are used to draw congressional and state legislative districts.”
Here in Vermont, the census stats will help shape a decennial redistricting process that could change the parameters of House and Senate districts for the Vermont Legislature.
The town of Middlebury’s website, townofmiddlebury.org, includes a link to extensive information about the 2020 Census. You can find everything you need at the aforementioned 2020census.org.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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