2020 Census Goes Digital

Every 10 years, the U.S. Census Bureau completes a survey of the population. If you participated in 2010, you likely remember filling out a paper form and may have wondered why you couldn’t complete it online. Well, the future is here.

With worries about the scope of government and the deficit, the Census Bureau has been directed to conduct the 2020 Census at a lower cost per household while maintaining consistent data quality. One of the big ways to cut those costs is to move primary data collection onto the web.

The effort has been designed to incentivize a high self-response rate, using current technology, administrative records and third-party data to target advertisements and prepare the public to submit their information. You can expect to see ads promoting it in 2019. The Census Bureau also plans to complete extensive address canvasing in an effort to ensure data quality and make participation as easy as possible for the public.

Online self-response opens in March 2020 and runs through September. All you will need to do is login to the Census Bureau website to submit your information. The physical location of your computer or mobile device will be used to identify your response – no need for the unique identification number of previous years. And if you’re not at home, you can simply provide your address.

But the paper form isn’t going anywhere. Responses will be collected via the mode easiest for the participant – be it internet, paper or by phone.

Why is the census so important? Its principal mandate is to count each person, in the right place, and to report those results to the U.S. president, the states and the people. Its findings are used for a variety of functions within our government, including the allocation of seats to the House of Representatives, as well as redistricting.

Decennial censuses also establish sampling guidelines for further Census Bureau surveys and become the basis for all other Census Bureau operations, which appropriates roughly $400 billion in federal funding to local communities.

The information collected is extremely useful to economists, demographers and other researchers investigating various areas of interest, including poverty, health care, education, economic mobility and so forth. In short, this data supports many essential functions in our society.

Since the last census in 2010, Montana has broken 1 million residents (2012) and become slightly more racially diverse. Other trends show that a smaller share of residents are currently married and more are commuting farther to work.

Trends like these come from Census Bureau surveys conducted annually or even monthly, between the decennial censuses. But the results are merely estimates, as opposed to a census which is a count – no need for statistical extrapolation or confidence intervals. Nonetheless, these activities give us a good idea of where the population is headed.

Many of the trends we see nationwide are also present in Montana. We are becoming more populous, diverse, educated and connected to one another. We are also becoming more single, or more appropriately, delaying traditional family choices in favor of farther education, job prospects/security, as well as greater financial security. We are also commuting slightly further for work as a whole, reflecting a tighter economy coming out of the recession.

While the days of a census worker knocking on your door is not completely gone, we can look forward to the convenience of the internet in 2020. But whatever mode of your choosing, be prepared to complete your census information on time and accurately. The more accurately we collectively complete the census, the less it will cost. And good, reliable data benefits everyone – its uses are as boundless as our curiosity in investigating it.