It impacts everything from bus routes to new grocery stores. Here’s why you should care about the census

It impacts everything from bus routes to new grocery stores. Here’s why you should care about the census
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If you care about getting grocery stores in your neighborhood, having access to public transit, and seeing federal funding go to your schools, you should fill out a census survey.

It might not be the sexiest cocktail party conversation fodder, but census data is the backbone for municipal planning. It informs decisions about everything from affordable housing needs to how many representatives in congress we have. In a fast-growing city like Charlotte, having an accurate count of the population is crucial.

In a few days, the federal government will start distributing census questionnaires to households across the nation. The U.S. Census Bureau conducts these Constitutionally mandated counts once every decade.

People can complete the short questionnaire online, by mail, or over the phone. It takes about five minutes to complete.

The questionnaire asks things like how many people are living in your home, whether you own or rent your home, and the relationship of everyone in your home. The census does not ask about your citizenship status.

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You can find a sample questionnaire here.

Starting March 12 and running through April, households in Mecklenburg County and beyond will receive a census questionnaire. After that, the federal government will remind you — a lot — to fill out your information. You’ll receive a reminder letter, a reminder postcard,  then another reminder letter and paper questionnaire, then a final reminder postcard.

Over the summer, census volunteers will visit your home if you haven’t responded. They’re persistent, but for good reason.

Vital services in both the public and private sector depend on census data in determining how to best allocate local resources.

“The sheer number of policy and funding decisions it impacts is huge,” says Katie Zager, a social research specialist at UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute.

“The federal government looks at population density to figure out transit formulas. Your small two-person local-level nonprofit will cite census data in their grant applications.”

In Charlotte, countless businesses and government services rely on census data.

Health care: Atrium Health, for instance, used population estimates and demographic data from the last census in 2010 to determine where 17 new urgent care facilities should go in Mecklenburg County.

Transit: Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) used census data to determine its new bus routes, CATS spokeswoman Juliann Sheldon says in an email.

“Low income, youth, and elderly populations, as well as car ownership data, help CATS to identify geographical areas that have a higher need for bus service, and design bus routes appropriately.”

CATS also uses population data from the census when requesting federal funding for big projects like the light rail.

The 19-mile Blue Line, which runs from Pineville up to UNC Charlotte, was funded with 50 percent federal dollars; the rest came from state and local sources.

Charlotte Blue Line stop view from North End

Charlotte Blue Line stop view from Optimist Park

Similarly, the city’s next light-rail project may require billions in federal funds.

The city recently voted to spend $50 million to design the Silver Line, the 25-mile east-west rail that’ll run from Gaston County down to the southeastern tip of the county. It’s unclear where its funding will come from, but it’ll likely be a mix of federal and local funds, like the Blue Line. 

Library: For the library system, 90 percent of funding comes from Mecklenburg County. The county, in turn, relies on census data for its own funding. The library also uses demographic data for planning, and to justify requests to the county for new and expanded facilities, spokeswoman Ann Stawski says.

Rendering of the new uptown library

Rendering of the new, 115,000 square-foot Uptown library, designed by Snohetta (courtesy of Charlotte Mecklenburg Library)

Supermarkets: Grocery stores like Harris Teeter use census data in their formulas to determine where to build stores. Additionally, they look at the size and configuration of sites, existing and future traffic patterns, the proximity of existing Harris Teeter locations, and other economic considerations, spokeswoman Danna Robinson says.

Andrew Bowen, one of the city’s in-house census gurus, likens census participation to voting. Everyone knows it’s important, but not everyone always does it.

Of course, population data is vital in determining how much of the $800 billion per year in federal aid will be distributed to each state. But it’s also used for apportionment for the House of Representatives.

“In 2010, North Carolina was extremely close to gaining a rep in the House. At our current growth rate, we are fully expecting to pick one up after the 2020 census,” says Bowen, the city’s data analytics manager.

There are myths and misconceptions about census participation, Bowen says, just like there is with voting:

  • You don’t have to own your home to participate. Even if you rent and live with a roommate, you should participate.
  • You should also participate even if you don’t expect to live in Charlotte long term.
  • Census workers are only going to come knocking on your door if you don’t respond to the mailer you receive this spring. In the last census, roughly 75 percent of Mecklenburg households responded to the mailer, Bowen says.
  • The federal government does not share or disclose your identifiable information.
  • Again, there is no citizenship question on the census. The Trump administration had pushed to include one, but federal judges blocked the effort last summer.

It’s also important to note that the decennial census is separate from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

The ACS surveys a select number of households every year, and asks more detailed questions than the decennial census. ACS question topics include income, employment, education, and housing.

For the decennial census, Mecklenburg County has its own dedicated informational arm called MeckCounts 2020. This spring, it’s hosting free boot camps for the community to answer questions and address misconceptions. The link to the event page is here.

Cordelia Anderson, who is assisting MeckCounts 2020 with outreach, says the organization is focusing on reaching historically underrepresented communities in the census like young children, highly mobile people, LGBTQ persons, racial and ethnic minorities, non-English speakers, and people experiencing homelessness, among others.

Those groups were less likely to respond in the 2010 census and could be less likely to respond in the 2020 census, she adds.

There are a number of reasons why people might not participate in the census — mainly fear, apathy, or a lack of understanding, Bowen says.

“It’s the same reason people might not vote: ‘My voice doesn’t matter.’ ‘Why would I fill out this form to say that I live here?’ ‘I might be living somewhere else in three years,'” he says.

“We’ve got to know where everybody is on April 1, 2020.”

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