A once-in-a-decade event will soon be upon us: the Census.
It’s a proceeding that has been ingrained in the U.S. democratic process for more than 200 years, and one that determines funding allocations and districting for congressional representation.
Montezuma County Counts, a local campaign to participate in the Census, is in full swing. Cortez Mayor Karen Sheek, co-chairwoman of the Montezuma County Complete Count Committee, said the group has been preparing for the 2020 Census for about a year now. She added that the data gathered is crucial to government operations, both locally and federally.
“Lots of things that we can learn about the location of people in our population and the kinds of services that we may be looking at and needing on a real broad scale,” Sheek said. “There are lots of reasons why the Census is important.”
This is also the first year that the Census can be taken online, although people can also still respond via mail or over the phone.
The first Census was conducted in 1790, when the country’s population stood at 3.9 million people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It slowly grew over the 19th century, until Congress decided in 1902 to officially create a permanent Census Bureau to better process all the demographic, agricultural, and economic information gathered.
In the ensuing centuries since its inception, the Census Bureau’s headquarters have moved sites and the Census questions have changed. The 1910 census included questions about “Mother-Tongue” and Civil War veteran status, while the 1950 count was the first time the agency counted Americans abroad, including U.S. armed forces and federal civilian personnel.
This year’s questions ask for the number of people residing in a given home as of April 1, 2020, and the age, race, and sex of those residents, along with whether or not they are of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin. The information submitted is confidential and used only for statistical purposes, according to the Census Bureau.
Sheek said that they are pushing Montezuma County residents to participate because the data largely determines funding allocations for services like affordable housing programs, school lunch programs, Medicaid, roads, parks and trails, economic development, senior supports, and more.
According to the state of Colorado, about $880 billion in federal funding is allocated nationwide based on Census counts. In Colorado, this comes out to around $13 billion annually or an estimated $2,300 per person.
“It can represent a significant amount of funding that without participation, we’re not going to receive,” Sheek said.
Additionally, the Census allows the federal government to track demographic and population shifts over time, and determine how seats in the U.S. House of Representatives should be allocated.
“From that perspective, it’s really important to be sure that we get adequate representation at the federal level,” Sheek said.
And on a more general level, by digging into the data and better understanding the populations they serve, local governments can determine what services are most needed in their communities.
Sheek is co-chairing the Montezuma County Complete Count Committee with Doug Roth, GIS coordinator for both the city of Cortez and Montezuma County. For the past year, they have been working on the campaign, brainstorming ways to engage residents and ensure everyone gets counted.
“Our primary focus is on trying to reach out and be sure that we get those hard-to-reach parts of our community,” Sheek said. “Folks that sometimes for whatever reason don’t respond: homeless, seniors who maybe are shut in, people who have language barriers, some of those kinds of things.”
To achieve this, the committee has been collaborating with various local organizations, including The Bridge shelter, public libraries, and school districts. This will be the first year the Census can be completed online, and so the committee was able to purchase some tablets for Laurie Knutson with The Bridge to use for the shelter’s constituents on designated days.
The committee is also reaching out to local soup kitchens and plans to set those sites up with tablets, so that people who come in for a meal can fill out a Census there, Sheek said. The Cortez Public Library will also have computers to assist locals.
Committee members also are promoting an educational component, and have purchased a variety of materials for students in the county’s three school districts, including water bottles, pens, and portfolios with Census logos. They hope teachers can use the swag to instruct their students about the decennial event.
“Just to use this as a teachable moment as to why we have a Census, how did it come into being, and why it’s important that everybody participates,” Sheek said.
Census Day is officially April 1, 2020 – residents are asked to answer Census questions by April 1 – but there will be a wider swath of time for people to respond. Invitations with instructions on how to complete forms will be sent out mid-March, and throughout the month of April, Census takers will be visiting college campuses, senior centers, and other places with large groups of residents.
In May through July, Census takers will follow up with residents who haven’t yet responded, and by December, the U.S. Census Bureau will deliver the counts to the president and Congress.
For more information, visit the Montezuma Counts website.