In this Aug. 13, 2019, file photo, a worker gets ready to pass out instructions on how to fill out the 2020 census during a town hall meeting.

In this Aug. 13, 2019, file photo, a worker gets ready to pass out instructions on how to fill out the 2020 census during a town hall meeting.

Have you checked the mail today? If you haven’t, go check it. You may have gotten your invitation to complete the 2020 census.

By April 1, the U.S. Census Bureau will have contacted every household in the country, whether by sending a letter by mail or hand-delivering a census packet. It’s part of a once-a-decade tradition of counting every person living here, regardless of citizenship or immigration status.

It’s been 10 years since we’ve done one of these, so it’s time for a reminder: What is the census, and why is it so important?

Produced by Kurt Gardinier


  • Hansi Lo Wang National correspondent, NPR; @hansilowang
  • Kenneth Prewitt Carnegie Professor of Public Affairs at Columbia University, former Director of the United States Census Bureau
  • Terri Ann Lowenthal Nationally recognized expert, consultant and speaker on the U.S. census, fourteen-year congressional aide who served as staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee
  • Michael C. Cook, Sr. Chief, Public Information Office, U.S. Census Bureau; @uscensusbureau


  • 12:00:03

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll discuss how tipped workers and others in the food industry are coping as the coronavirus empties restaurants and bars. But first, have you checked the mail today? You may have gotten your invitation to complete the 2020 census and by April 1st, the Census Bureau will have sent a letter or have knocked on every household in the U.S. It's part of a once a decade tradition of counting every person living here regardless of whether you are a citizen or not.

  • 12:00:35

    KOJO NNAMDIIt's been 10 years since we've done one of these. So today we're getting a crash course on what the census is and why it is so important. Joining us by phone is Kenneth Prewitt, the Carnegie Professor of Public Affairs at Columbia University and the former Director of the United States Census Bureau. Kenneth Prewitt, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:00:54

    KENNETH PREWITTIt's my pleasure.

  • 12:00:56

    NNAMDIWhat is the census and why is it important?

  • 12:00:59

    PREWITTWell, census has been around a very long time, and for their entire history going back to the ancient world rulers counted and collected information about people in order to make use of them. That is to control them, to conscript them into the military and to tax them. It was a great achievement of our founders, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, to persuade people that this new nation of America could collect data on their citizens without using it against them.

  • 12:01:31

    PREWITTNow our record is not perfect. We counted slaves in order to control them, the Japanese Interment, but our census has on balance allowed the people to hold accountable the powerful even unseating them when necessary. Its premise is fairness allocating seats in Congress proportionate to population size and now funds as well substantially so. Every year more than $1.5 trillion across programs and health, education transport, disaster relief are allocated proportionate to population size.

  • 12:02:10

    NNAMDISome states are going the extra mile to make sure that every resident is counted. Can you tell us about that?

  • 12:02:17

    PREWITTYes. California is spending about 140 million of its own dollars to make sure they get a complete count. New York City and then New York more generally is not that far behind in those numbers. This is too bad, because it creates a lumpy census in the sense the wealthier states are going to get their fair share and maybe more than their fair share if the poorer states don't have the resources to invest. So that's the lay of the land. Now there are compensation systems in place. There are 10,000 complete count committees. These are local committees in cities and in towns and even out in the rural area, which are trying to mobilize the population to cooperate with the census, but some of those places are underfunded.

  • 12:03:13

    NNAMDIJoining us by phone is Michael Cook, Sr., Chief of the Public Information Office at the U.S. Census Bureau. Michael Cook, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:03:23

    MICHAEL C. COOKThank you for having me. I'm appreciative to be here to talk about the 2020 census and the fact that it is important as you've been talking to get a complete and accurate account. It's very important. It impacts people's lives and it helps shape their future for the next 10 years.

  • 12:03:40

    NNAMDICensus letters have already gone out. How is it going so far at this early stage?

  • 12:03:47

    COOKInvitations to respond started hitting mailboxes back on March 12 and will continue through this Friday for our first initial mailers. We have seen 6.5 million people respond online already. If you haven't received yours yet, you'll likely get it by Friday, and some households have already even been receiving their first reminder letters this week.

  • 12:04:10

    NNAMDIHow has -- or how do you anticipate that the coronavirus pandemic will affect the census specifically in this Washington region?

  • 12:04:19

    COOKWell, we are adapting the work that we're doing right now to protect the safety of the public as well as our staff while still getting a complete and accurate count. We're listening to the CDC's guidance as well as other state and local health authorities. And we're adapting our focus in on reducing group interactions.

  • 12:04:39

    COOKI will say that the beauty of the 2020 census is that it's more easier than ever this decade to respond to the census yourself, and you can do that either online, by phone or by mail. And if you do that, you won't have to have a census taker knock on your door or follow up when you don't respond. So as people get invited to respond we encourage them to respond, because in responding the benefits for responding to the census affect your community not just with political representation, but the billions and some estimated trillions of dollars in federal funds that's distributed locally for things like healthcare, emergency preparedness, even school lunch programs.

  • 12:05:32

    NNAMDII infer from what you just said that the door to door counts will still continue, correct?

  • 12:05:37

    COOKWe're currently assessing the door to door count, follow-up if you will. There is an operation where we actually go out and enumerate and try to achieve an accurate count of college students. And we've pushed back that date currently from the beginning of April to the end of April knowing that we are currently in conversations and discussions with colleges and universities and administrators across the country to try to find out and ascertain if they still plan to be counted. The way that we had originally heard back from them and the information that we had received earlier, when we contacted and reached out.

  • 12:06:20

    COOKSo one thing I want to let the students know that if you are not at your college location and you have temporarily moved away students should still be counted at the address that they've been at all semester. And they should be counted where they usually live.

  • 12:06:37

    NNAMDIIs there any scenario that would cancel or delay the census?

  • 12:06:44

    COOKWell, as you know, we do have a law in place that describes and obligates us to conduct the census and to return to the President, to Congress, the population count that used proportionate by December 31st of this year. We have made some adjustments and made some modifications to our operations to ensure that we are being mindful of all of the guidance that's being given at the local level and all of the changes in reference to getting access to people, large groups not gathering.

  • 12:07:23

    COOKSo we're trying to be mindful of that. For instance -- I can give you an example, we're assessing our training. The training of employees that we're bringing on to do our service based enumeration where we count the homeless population, the people that we're hiring they will actually be going out and counting college students or in college towns, we're changing that training from being one on one to a virtual training online, so that we're not actually making people come together. We're trying to follow the letter of the guidance being given by the health professionals.

  • 12:07:59

    NNAMDIHere is John in Fairfax, Virginia. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:08:03

    JOHNHello. Thank you for taking my call. I filled out my census form a couple of days ago and realized that people, who do not have access to the internet in particular the homeless that are nearby my community take funding from our local community, but that community doesn't get reimbursed unless those people are counted also. When I called the Census Bureau, they only had ways or they only knew of their own policies that referred to counting the homeless, who are in shelters or campgrounds or other facilities. And I wanted to see if we can encourage people to talk to our local case workers and police and organizations, like, that as well as figuring out how to do it ourselves to enumerate those people that would otherwise not be funded.

  • 12:08:59

    NNAMDIIs that a good idea would you say, Michael Cook?

  • 12:09:02

    COOKWell, there's strict provisions that guide the count. Title 13 of the U.S. Code is a law that's on the books that basically prevents anybody from sharing personal identifiable information about the people that we're counting. So I have to take an oath for life. All the other individuals of the Census Bureau take an oath for life not to share that personal identifiable information. So because it is an operation that is mandated by Congress, it's in the constitution, we are working with a lot of partners, thousands of partners across the country. And we are making calls presently to all of those service based officials and or establishments to determine how best to count that population given where we are in the outbreak of COVID-19.

  • 12:10:00

    COOKI will let you know that we have decided to pushback some of our accounts or counting of people that are experiencing homelessness. Originally we had planned to count that population between March 30 and April. We're now going to be contacting those service providers during that time to make sure that they are actually open and find the best path forward to count that population.

  • 12:10:34

    NNAMDIHere's a technical question for you. Mark emails, "This is the first time I'm submitting responses to the census, and my wife is currently pregnant with our child due in August. Since our child will be using services once born, should I include our future child in the count?"

  • 12:10:51

    COOKThe future child, no. The present child, yes. The residence criteria clearly states that you are supposed to fill out the form based on a snapshot of your household as of April 1. And so one thing that we are emphasizing as we're communicating through the public and through our advertising that's already being played across the country is that every decade there are certain segments of the population that are undercounted. And one of them is young children. That's children aged zero to five and so we want to make sure that when people count the individuals that are in their household, they not only count themselves, but they count everybody including the children. And if they have somebody that's living with them that is not related to them, if you have a friend or someone, who is residing in your house that's not related to you, they should be counted as well.

  • 12:11:40

    NNAMDIFinally, what does a successful census look like to you and to the Bureau?

  • 12:11:46

    COOKWell, as of today we have 6.5 million people that have responded online to the census. And we've always said and it's always known that the best response is a self-response. So when people get invited to respond to the census, if they can self-respond online, by phone or through the mail that is the best census that we can have. Because it's so important, because it only happens once every 10 years, if you're missed the consequences are the political representation and also that federal funding that flows down to the local community isn't exactly accurate.

  • 12:12:24

    COOKAnd so we are laser focused to make sure that the populations across the country that have typically been unaccounted aren't under counted this time. And specifically for the DMV, black men ages 18 to 29 is a segment of the population that's been undercounted. And so we are doing our level best working with the thousands of partnerships, specialists and partners across the country to get the word out that everyone needs to be counted. In particular those people that we have historically undercounted. is the place to go for more information.

  • 12:13:00

    NNAMDIMichael C. Cook, Sr. is Chief of the Public Information Office at the U.S. Census Bureau. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:13:06

    COOKThanks for having me. I appreciate you.

  • 12:13:08

    NNAMDIJoining us now by phone is Hansi Lo Wang, National correspondent for NPR, who is reporting on the people, power and money behind the 2020 census. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:13:19

    HANSI LO WANGThank you for having me, Kojo. I have to say as a former D.C. resident, long time listener, first time caller.

  • 12:13:23

    NNAMDIWell, we appreciate you being on the show today. You've written a piece for NPR title "10 Census's Fact that Bust Common Myths" about the 2020 U.S. head count. Tell us about, oh, the top two from your list.

  • 12:13:37

    WANGI would say the top two facts to help debunk some myths that are floating out there by the 2020 census, number one the 2020 census does not, does not include a citizenship question. And that is a topic that I've reported on for more than a year and the fact is right now federal courts have permanently blocked the Trump administration from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census forms. That went through a major legal battle that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

  • 12:14:10

    WANGAnd the Trump administration said it wanted to add this question, Is this person a citizen of the United States? And ultimately the federal courts said that the reason the administration provided initially on paper that they wanted to collect that information to better protect the voting rights of racial minorities that that reason was a sham essentially. Multiple federal judges have concluded that including a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court that call that reasoning contrived, appear to be contrived. And so at this point if you take a look at the census forms online, on paper or calling one of the toll free numbers you will not be asked about your U.S. citizenship status.

  • 12:14:49

    WANGThe other top fact, I think to highlight, would be that the U.S. census and I think other folks have mentioned this, but important to point out does not only count U.S. citizens. If you take a look at Article 1 Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution and you take a look at the 14th Amendment, which then updated that language there's no talk about citizens when we're talking about the census an actual enumeration. It's all talk about persons. And after the Civil War the 14th Amendment clarified that it's the whole number of persons that should be counted in each and every state. And that is something that a lot of people actually don't know.

  • 12:15:26

    NNAMDIHere is Fahad in Waldorf, Maryland. Fahad, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:15:31

    FAHADHi, Kojo. Thank you. My question was more directed to the previous expert you had on your show. I wanted to know -- I as an immigrant realize the importance of these census, but I wanted to know how it is the U.S. Census Bureau, what are they doing in terms of outreach to emphasize and stress how important that is because it does touch down all the way to our lives on a local level as well.

  • 12:15:58

    NNAMDIKenneth Prewitt, can you answer that question.

  • 12:16:03

    PREWITTCertainly. There's a -- as was said by the Census Bureau already, the number of people are in the millions, who are trying to convince their neighbors, their fellow church goers, people in their clubs to -- these are trusted voices. This is not -- the census's face today is not the Census Bureau itself. It's all of these local organizations, school teachers and so forth. So that's whose got to deliver this message to the immigrant population that you can and must be for your own benefit counted in the census and this is a not count -- this is not an identification that can be used against you.

  • 12:16:50

    PREWITTThat's the whole basic premise of the census. That it is not to be used against the people who recede in this country. That's what the founders said, but we're going to have to count not on just our enumerators and our officials. But we're going to have to count on our teachers, neighbors, friends and so forth.

  • 12:17:11

    NNAMDIHansi Lo Wang, we got Jeff from D.C. who writes, "I completed my census form today and noticed that the form asks first, 'Are you Hispanic?' before asking about other race classification options. Why are Hispanics singled out like this?" Jeff wants to know. Can you answer that, Hansi?

  • 12:17:30

    WANGYes. This is a very common question. And it goes back to federal standards set by the White House's Office of Management and Budget that the Census Bureau has to follow and every federal survey has to follow, which is Hispanic or Latino origins has to be asked in the context of ethnicity. These federal standards they do not consider a Hispanic or Latino or LatinX identity as a racial identity. And the reason for that is that it allows people who identify as LatinX to identify however they would like racially. That folks could identify as LatinX and also identify as black or as white or as black and white, for example. And that is why there is that separate question and you do not see a specific category for Hispanic, Latino, LatinX identity in the race question.

  • 12:18:19

    WANGThis is something however that the Census Bureau has been following very closely, because it looks back at the results from the 2000 census and the 2010 census. And a lot of folks who identify as LatinX were very confused by this race question. To have a separate question about Hispanic or Latino identity. And a lot of folks, who identify as LatinX ended up checking off a box as some other race for the racial question. That actually became the third largest racial group for the 2000 and 2010 census results after white and black. And that is bad data. And so the Census Bureau did propose a change to the 2020 census form and how the race ethnicity that data would be collected.

  • 12:19:01

    WANGHowever, the Office of Management and Budget, the White House did not make a public decision about that. And so the Census Bureau had to move forward with the general formatting that was used in previous censuses. And that's why there still is that separate question. And it is causing some confusion among folks, who do see LatinX identity as their racial identity as well.

  • 12:19:23

    NNAMDIJoining us by phone is Terri Ann Lowenthal, Nationally recognized expert on the U.S. census and a veteran congressional aide, who served as staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee. Terri Ann Lowethal, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:19:39

    TERRI ANN LOWENTHALIt's great to be with you.

  • 12:19:41

    NNAMDIAs someone who's served as staff director on that House census oversight committee for many years, what do you think is the most important element of the census that has not already been mentioned?

  • 12:19:52

    LOWENTHALI think it's important for everyone to understand as we are talking about online response and the importance of households responding on their own so that census taker doesn't have to come out and knock on the door. That there are three ways that all households can answer this census. So you can respond online for your household and that's for those that have internet access. It's easiest and, of course, it's less expensive for the government. But everyone can also call a toll free number and provide the answers for their household that way in English plus 12 other languages. And by the way you can also respond online in English plus 12 other languages.

  • 12:20:43

    LOWENTHALAnd then there are some folks who just prefer to use the traditional paper form. Everyone also will have the opportunity to do that. Some homes received a paper form in the first mailing or the one that they'll get this week. But if they didn't they should just sit tight, be patient. If they haven't yet responded by mid-April in a few weeks a paper form will be sent to their home.

  • 12:21:10

    NNAMDIAs someone who's lived in D.C. for 20 years and worked on the Hill, why is the census important particularly for this D.C. region and what are some problems that are perhaps unique to this area?

  • 12:21:22

    LOWENTHALWell, thanks for asking that. That's an important question. I mean, as with all other cities and states in the country and as Dr. Prewitt mentioned earlier, you know, the census is the basis for more than a trillion and a half federal government dollars alone every year that goes to vital services such as schools and teachers, road and transit improvements including Metro, hospitals and healthcare. And I really should add at this, you know, difficult time for our country that a lot of funding for hospitals and health care programs and even Medicaid and Medicare rely on an accurate census.

  • 12:22:08

    LOWENTHALNow the District of Columbia itself receives a lot of money every year, based on the census in 2017 it received I think about $6 billion and you have to multiply that times 10, because we have to live with the census results for the next 10 years. Kojo, I think the other important point, though, for D.C. residents is that, you know, the census is not an equal opportunity enumeration. And it doesn't count all communities equally well. You know, it's already been discussed, but just briefly, you know, people of color are missed at disproportionately high rates, low income households in urban and rural communities are missed at higher rates.

  • 12:22:57

    LOWENTHALYou've already talked about the disproportionately high undercount of young children. Immigrants, those who English is not the primary language, also more at right risk of being missed. And in D.C., of course, the population is almost 50 percent African American or black. You know, about 11 percent of the population is Hispanic even, you know, getting close to five percent is Asian American. And almost 15 percent of the D.C. population is foreign born.

  • 12:23:34

    LOWENTHALAnd if you look at the response rates, what we call the self-response rate households answering on their own from the 2010 census, you can clearly see that most neighborhoods in Anacostia, right, over the river the Ward 7 and 8 had very low self-response rate 62 percent or lower even below 50 percent. While neighborhoods up in Northwest, upper Northeast D.C. and Capitol Hill had the self-response rates, you know, in the high 60 percentages all the way up into the low 80 percents. It doesn't mean that the other households won't be counted. But they are more difficult to count, because you have to send out census takers to convince people that are already are reluctant to be counted.

  • 12:24:23

    NNAMDII do have to interrupt, because we're almost out of time. Kenneth Prewitt, you recently wrote a piece title "This Census is Unlike Any Before and We Have Reason to Worry." What do we need to worry about?

  • 12:24:35

    PREWITTWell, I better go back to COVID-19, of course. There is no doubt in my mind -- I cannot speak to the bureau. It's not doubt in my mind that if we're in the kind of shutdown we're in now, the Census Bureau will not be able to do what they planned, which is to follow-up door to door, when people don't answer the form. We expect that to be as many as a third of the households. However, the Census Bureau does have a fallback strategy if it wants to use it. It now knows how to draw on government administrative records to accurately identify more than 90 percent of the population for the basic count that allocates seats and allocates money.

  • 12:25:19

    PREWITTSo we'll see if they -- they're obviously looking at all kinds of options. But it would not surprise me and that's what I meant it's going to be such a change because this we were thinking of doing for 2030. But I can now see that we're going to have to do it for 2020 to make heavy use of government administrative records.

  • 12:25:38

    NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Kenneth Prewitt, Hansi Lo Wang and Terri Ann Lowenthal, thank you all for joining us. Michael Cook had to leave earlier. We're going to take a short break. When we come we'll discuss how tipped workers and other in the food industry are coping as the coronavirus empties restaurants and bars. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

Topics + Tags


comments powered by Disqus
Most Recent Shows

The Politics Hour: September 25, 2020

Friday, Sep 25 2020Maryland State Sen. Will Smith (D-Montgomery County) discusses policing bills and the latest Purple Line news. And D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) talks about vision zero, voting and the legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The Many Benefits Of Getting Outdoors During A Pandemic

Thursday, Sep 24 2020How are Washingtonians finding solace in the natural world during a time of turmoil? Local naturalist Melanie Choukas-Bradley and WAMU reporter Margaret Barthel join us to discuss the many ways to get outside in the Washington region — and what it can mean for your mind and body.