Among the many parts of our lives that are complicated by COVID-19, add the U.S. Census, which officially begins April 1. Working to get an accurate count of our country’s entire population is not a simple undertaking under normal circumstances; doing it during quarantines, travel restrictions and social distancing is especially challenging.
But if there’s silver lining in this situation, it’s that participating in the census has never been easier. People can complete their census forms online, by phone or by mail—all without having to meet a census taker at the door. I just completed mine, and it took less than 10 minutes! Instructions and phone support are available in 12 languages in addition to English, ensuring that over 99% of U.S. households can respond in their preferred language. In most households, the census form can be completed and filed in the time it takes to boil pasta.
The census is enormously important. Data from the census is used for everything from determining seats in U.S. House of Representatives, to where businesses locate and schools are built. Census data determines how more than $675 billion in federal dollars are spent, including programs such as SNAP and the National School Lunch Program, federal payments to agricultural research and Extension and 1890 land-grant universities, and many more.
Within UF/IFAS Extension, census data impacts our funding from government and foundation sources; it determines local policies and staffing availability; it forecasts changes to Florida’s population and demographics, which guide our decisions for the Extension roadmap.
Now more than ever, it’s vital that everyone is counted. In Florida, an undercount of just 1% in the 2010 census resulted in an estimated $178 million losses in federal funding. Over a ten-year span, losses due to undercounts can amount to millions of dollars and millions of people in underserved populations being overlooked.
That’s why Extension has a crucial role to play in the 2020 Census. Although we will not be acting as census takers, we can leverage our position in the community and our role as change agents to do two things:
- Encourage everyone to participate in the census.
- Encourage people to participate as early as possible—online, by phone or by mail—to avoid the necessity for census takers to visit door-to-door. Considering the current “stay-at-home orders,” this is more significant than ever.
It’s important to not only get the word out about the census, but to help effect outcomes—that’s something that we in Extension are uniquely trained to do.
To help you develop strategies for communicating about the census, we’ve added a new Census 2020 page to the Extension Administration website. This page includes FAQs, resources from government and partner sources, historical data, and tips on how you can get the word out about the importance of the census to your community.
Getting clients to fill out the census is not very different from getting them to adopt BMPs, practice worker safety or embrace Florida-Friendly Landscaping. It’s a matter of knowing the needs of your audience, explaining the incentives, dispelling myths, and laying out actionable outcomes. It’s an extension of our regular Extension work—one that will affect how we evolve as an organization and how we serve the people of Florida.