Every 10 years, we are asked to complete our civic duty and respond to the census, but until I was in office, I never thought about what an impressive, important and, quite frankly, genius endeavor the U.S. census is. As an arts educator, I have a great interest in the story and the thought process of the U.S. census.
The census goes back thousands of years with iterations throughout history and across the world. At its core, the census is a procedure for enumerating, acquiring and recording information on a given population. In ancient Rome, the census was used to record adult men fit for military service. Over millennia, the census has evolved to become a powerful tool for statistical analysis and international comparisons of the ever-evolving landscape of our world.
With the creation of our great nation, the story of the census gets truly inspiring. According to census.gov, “The founders of our fledgling nation had a bold and ambitious plan to empower the people over their new government. The plan was to count every person living in the newly created United States of America, and to use that count to determine representation in the Congress.
“Enshrining this invention in our Constitution marked a turning point in world history. Previously, censuses had been used mainly to tax or confiscate property or to conscript youth into military service. The genius of the founders was taking a tool of government and making it a tool of political empowerment for the governed over their government.”
Rather than simply using the census as a tool to define our apportionment of taxes owed to the nation, it is a tool to define what our apportionment of the nation is owed to the state, counties and municipalities. That’s a level of prognostication on the part of our founding fathers lost to history.
The year 2020 marked a new innovation in its evolution with our first opportunity to complete the census online, a fortuitous advancement given the emergence of a pandemic that has had such a profound impact on our lives and our ability to move around.
Sadly, with so many crises converging in the short span of the first half of the year, the urgency of the census in our 24-hour news cycle has been lost, as well as the head-scratching decision by the Federal Census Bureau to move the end date back from October 31 to September 30, leaving us just one month to complete our reporting.
In 2010, Anne Arundel County alone had an undercount of 22% which translated to a loss of $43 million in federal funds to support our essential public services such as schools, hospitals, law enforcement and road construction, over the span of 10 years. Make no mistake, the necessity of those services does not disappear when we don’t have the funds. We are left with only a few choices: raise local taxes, expand the tax base with new development, or cut services. Every resident not counted equates to $18,000 of federal funds lost to our county over the next decade.
We have enumerators in the field, but they accounted for only 5% of reporting in 2010 because self-reporting is the most effective and efficient way of ensuring everyone is counted.
In a year when we have suffered so many historic losses, the census feels like it is easily lost in the maelstrom, but it couldn’t be more important than in a year when we are looking at historic state and local revenue losses. Currently, Anne Arundel County’s self-reporting rate is around 74% — meaning we are on target to lose more in federal funds over the next decade than the last, but we can turn this around. Everyone can do this; it’s easy, important and safe, and you can complete the census online, by mail or by phone. Like our founding fathers intended, let’s make our census work for us.
For more information or to complete the census online, go to www.my2020census.gov or call 844-330-2020.