We’re Counting on You: Researcher Explains Importance of Participating in U.S. 2020 Census

By Tom McLaughlin

By April 1, every home in the United States has been invited to participate in the U.S. 2020 census – an important invitation that not even the coronavirus pandemic will cancel.

A closeup view of the U.S. Census Bureau logo on census.gov

Jargowsky explains that U.S. census data determines congressional representation and how federal funds are distributed.

Hoping to get the word out, the U.S. federal government has budgeted $500 million to its outreach campaign urging people everywhere to participate in the decennial survey.

So what’s the big deal?

“It’s how we know who we are,” says Paul Jargowsky, director of the Center for Urban Research and Education at Rutgers University–Camden. “As a nation, that’s our first step: we need to know ourselves if we want to be able to move forward. We need this data to understand where our challenges are and how we can meet them.”

Jargowsky explains that the U.S. census data determines congressional representation. Also, there are more than 300 federal programs that distribute more than $1.5 trillion in federal funds to counties and states based on formulas derived from census data. Without an accurate count, he says, things like education, job training, and infrastructure programs would be affected and reduced relative to places where people are counted.

“If you want to get the funds that you are entitled to under federal law, you need an accurate count of people in your district,” says Jargowsky.

So then what would life look like without this vital information?

The Rutgers–Camden researcher likens it to trying to run a business without having any information on sales, costs, or profits. Without this data, citizens are “in the dark,” he says, with funds not going where the need is greatest.

“If that’s the case, then we are just wasting our money,” he says. “We need to know what’s going on in our communities, so programs can reach their intended beneficiaries.”

Jargowsky notes that many government-subsidized programs are geared toward benefiting children.

Jargowsky notes that many government-subsidized programs are geared toward ensuring children have the proper resources and infrastructure in place so they can learn and grow to become productive members of society. In spite of this, he says, an estimated one million children under the age of 5 were not counted in the last census a decade ago – a stunning statistic that recently prompted even The Count from Sesame Street to implore parents to participate.

“This is exactly the group that a lot of these programs are in place to assist,” says Jargowsky. “But children won’t benefit from these programs if we don’t know they are there.”

The Rutgers–Camden researcher further notes that while the U.S. census has a small number of questions, the record also forms the basis for sampling formulas of more robust surveys, such as the American Community Survey, which collects data on social, economic, housing, and demographic characteristics every year.

“These are essentially all of the things in public policy and the history of our nation, and the changes in our nation, that we discuss every day,” says Jargowsky. “If we don’t have accurate census data, we won’t have a real knowledge and understanding of the demographic trends in our country.”

Jargowsky recalls that he first realized the immense value of U.S. census data in the 1980s, when newspapers began running stories about high-poverty neighborhoods in major cities such as Chicago and New York. People wondered if these cities were the only ones plagued by these issues, but no one knew the answers to those questions.

He realized that the only way he could know for sure was to sift through the raw census data and put together a database looking at the locations and demographics of every neighborhood in the country.

Back then, the Rutgers–Camden researcher recalls, he had to work with a stack of reel-to-reel microfilm tapes mounted on a large mainframe computer. Today, he says, the job is a lot easier utilizing online databases, but if the data isn’t accurate, none of it matters.

“It’s just garbage in and garbage out,” says Jargowsky. “We can do all the fancy computer runs we want, but if we didn’t do an accurate count in the first place, it’s not quality research.”

Jargowsky adds that, just as U.S. census data can tell us the reality of life in the United States today, it will give us an accurate picture of our nation’s history in the future.

“One hundred years from now, when people want to go back and ask where we came from, we need to have an accurate record of what’s going on today,” he says. “Without it, they won’t know our history, and the challenges that we had and overcame.”

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