Local media gather to understand the 2020 Census

The 2020 U.S. Census will be the 24th population count in the nation’s 220 years. This massive yet rare event has been successfully repeated every 10 years since 1790 despite the nation’s involvement in war, economic strife and political turmoil.

The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a nonprofit journalism school and research organization in St. Petersburg, Fla., came to Detroit in early June to help reporters, editors and media of all kinds from Michigan learn about the Census, how it will occur in 2020 and how to write about it in a way that educates readers and citizens.

Why should people, businesses and governments care? Put simply, Poynter and Census officials said data from the 2020 Census will be used to determine representation in Congress as well as how funds are spent for roads, schools, hospitals and more.

The Census was created in the 1787 Constitution to apportion seats in the House of Representatives and Electoral College among the states. But it also offered the demographic history of the United States in terms of population growth and change – and how it directly affects the political system.

Why count?

The mission of the U.S. Census Bureau is to serve as the nation’s leading provider of quality data about its people and economy. The bottom line is this: It helps ensure that everyone in a community is counted. Detroit is specifically affected because the city has lost population and Michigan could lose Congressional representation due to population decline.

D’Vera Cohn, a senior writer and editor who focuses on immigration and demographics at the Pew Research Center, told the crowd of about 40 journalists that the first Census count will begin in remote areas of Alaska in January 2020. The first numbers (state apportionment counts) will be release in December 2020.

Local data will be released beginning in February 2021. This includes counts down to the block level. The Census Bureau expects to count more than 330 million people in 140 million units – it counts by household or other places where people live. Counting has always been done by household, and tabulation and publication have always been done by the federal government in Washington D.C.

The 2020 Census form will ask only six or seven data questions, Cohn noted. Detailed questions about income, education, commuting, housing value and more will be included on the American Housing Survey. The American Housing Survey (AHS), the most comprehensive housing survey in the U.S., provides up-to-date information on the size and composition of the housing stock in our country.

What we learn
Every census typically asks the same questions, focusing on age, sex, race/ethnicity, location and household composition. This has been the same since 1790 or the first Census, explained Margo Anderson, professor of History & Urban Studies, University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.

The Census also asks questions such as work, education, disability, family relationships, wealth and income as well as domestic and international migration. Questions about housing crept onto the Census by 1940, asking type of residence, ownership, selling characteristics and appliances, Anderson said.

The nation has come a long way since punch cards and rooms full of computers, Anderson noted. But it is still an “incredibly labor-intensive process” that has significance and importance to the country and its residents.

The big issues for 2020 are the multiple modes the Census Bureau will use to collect its data. It will seek answers on phone, paper, human census taker or a “smart” device, Anderson said. Other issues are whether Americans will respond as they have in the past, the accuracy of the count and whether citizenship will be a question on the Census.