The 2020 Census is approaching and Montana has a lot riding on it, including billions of dollars in federal funding and the number of Montana representatives in the U.S. House.
“What’s at stake is basically two things: power and money,” Karen Murphy, a U.S. Census partnership specialist focused on western Montana, said at the monthly City Club Missoula meeting on Monday.
The census counts everyone in the United States and is used as the basis for the allocation of more than $800 billion in federal funds annually to support programs that affect health care, housing, education, transportation, employment and public policy.
In Montana, the census determines about $2 billion of funding for the state, said Mary Craigle, bureau chief of the Census and Economic Information Center.
The population counts are also used to determine the number of seats each state gets in the U.S. House of Representatives. Montana lost a House seat in 1990, but the state is projected to regain it, depending on census participation.
Craigle said the repercussions of undercounting and underparticipation are significant. Each undercounted Montanan results in a loss of nearly $20,000 per person over the next decade.
Craigle said Montana had a slight overcount of 0.65% in the 2010 census, which still ranked the state 11th for accuracy nationally. However, Montana undercounted by more than 14,000 people in 2000, ranking it 44th for accuracy.
"The estimate is that Montana left on the table somewhere between $21 million and $29 million dollars in federal funding that should have come because we have (more) people here," Craigle said.
Montana census employees are working on making sure that doesn't happen again by developing committees across the state to educate the public about the importance of the census and how it works.
Their ultimate goal is to make sure as many Montanans as possible participate in the census.
Participating is easier than ever before. The 2020 census will be the first in history where people can respond online.
As a result, Murphy said they’re hoping to see an increase in the number of self-responses. The online option not only saves taxpayers money but also yields more immediate and truthful responses, according to Murphy.
“The fact is they tend to be more honest if they’re sitting down and answering on their own rather than being questioned,” Murphy said.
Murphy and five other census specialists in Montana are currently collaborating with local governments and partners to develop the Complete Count Committees, which aim to get the word out to the populations they serve.
That includes “hard-to-count” populations such as ethnic or minority populations, people who speak limited English, children up to age 5, low-income households, renters, homeless people, LGBTQ populations, young mobile individuals, undocumented immigrants and people who distrust the government.
Murphy said the local committees are critical to identifying transitory populations, such as Missoula’s homeless residents who camp by the river.
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Additionally, they get people to understand the confidentiality of their responses.
“It’s a tough topic right now to deal with,” Murphy said.
In addition to President Donald Trump’s push to include a citizenship question on the survey, Murphy said participation is challenged by people who mistrust the government or have privacy concerns.
“In rural Montana, it’s pretty difficult to sell folks on giving personal information to the government,” Murphy said. "Dollars go a long way in rural Montana and folks need to realize that.”
The final results of the census are reported to the president in aggregates, so all personally identified information is stripped from the data and is not reattached until 72 years later.
Craigle said she hopes people realize the census is designed to help individuals.
“The census is about protecting you as a resident in this country, it’s about making sure the laws are working for you, it’s about making sure you have a voice in your political representation,” Craigle said.
Although privacy concerns may be a deterrent for some, the length of the survey shouldn’t be, because this year’s census will be shorter than in previous years. Murphy said 10 questions should only take about 10 minutes.
Each household is required to complete only one questionnaire, which will include questions regarding name, age, date of birth, gender, race/ethnicity, household relationships, and homeowner or renter status.
Craigle pointed out that some responses help enforce various statues, such as the use of the race and ethnicity question to help ensure that the Civil Rights Act is being carried out.
The timeline for the 2020 census in Montana mirrors the rest of the nation.
Currently, the state’s six census specialists are working on developing the committees. In early 2020, census workers will start counting at group residences and housing developments such as dorms and prisons. The “boots on the ground” workers also visit transitory locations such as campgrounds and RV parks.
In March, people can begin to self-respond, ahead of census day on April 1, 2020, which aims to serve as a “snapshot” of the U.S. population. In May, workers start knocking on doors of households that have not responded. Data collection is completed in August and the final results are reported to the president in December.
The 2020 census will also bring job opportunities to Montanans. Craigle said the department will be hiring about 800 to 1,000 people to work during the "peak" months of the census, mostly to knock on doors in an effort to get people to respond.
"You can be as flexible as you want, you can work only a couple hours a week, you can work almost full-time," Craigle said.