Once every 10 years United States residents are urged to fill out the census. This count of the nation’s population has occurred regularly since 1790. We are told that responding to the census is important, but what does it actually do? And, why is it important to count everyone?

The census impacts people in many ways but broadly, it is used to determine where money should be spent, how decisions should be made to aid people and how elected officials’ districts should be drawn.

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction explains that “Medicaid, SNAP, highway projects, children’s health insurance, Title I and special education, and the National School Lunch Program are Wisconsin’s largest federal assistance programs. An incomplete count puts these programs at risk of losing resources in our state and leaves federal tax dollars free to flow away from Wisconsin every year for the next 10 years.”

The U.S. Census Bureau published a study in 2017 that looked at the importance of the census in federal spending decisions. The authors of the study wrote:

“This paper finds that 132 programs used Census Bureau data to distribute more than $675 billion in funds during fiscal year 2015.”

To put this in perspective, if divided evenly between the 50 states, each state would receive $13.5 billion annually.

In sum, the decennial census is a useful tool to see where people live and where money should best be spent to help residents. However, the census is only completely accurate if everyone fills it out. This, unfortunately, does not happen.

Wisconsin had the number one mail-in response rate in the 2010 census. But, according to WiCount Census 2020, Wisconsin was also in the top-10 states to have lost federal funding, which was due to communities being undercounted.

Xp Lee, the program manager for policy and special projects with the Minnesota Council on Foundations explained that there are numerous factors that can cause a person to not fill out the census.

“It’s a variety of things, but generally speaking, it's usually the combination of lack of English proficiency, financial resources and stable housing.”

While the U.S. Census labels groups that tend to be undercounted as “hard to count” communities, Minnesota Council on Foundations and other local organizations use the term “historically undercounted.”

“We use this term instead of ‘hard to count’ as a way to empower the community," Lee explained. "To change the framework that it’s not that they are hard to count, but that for various reasons their community has been undercounted, therefore under-represented, in previous census counts.”

Most groups of undercounted persons fall into one or more of the four, broad categories, according to the U.S. Census Bureau: hard to locate, hard to contact, hard to interview and hard to persuade.

These populations specifically include:

  • Children under 5 years old (one theory is that this is in large part due to parents who are separated and may assume the other household will count children).

  • Those living in rented homes. Apartments can be especially hard to count because census employees need to be let into the building in order to talk face-to-face with residents.

  • Highly mobile people who are not living in consistent long-term housing, are not living in traditional housing or snowbirds who do not live consistently in one state.

  • Young adults, specifically those in college and ages 18-24 who live away from their parents or home guardians.

  • Racial and ethnic minorities such as black, Hmong, members of tribal nations and Latinx, those who do not speak English, or undocumented immigrants.

  • People with low incomes or few resources, such as no access to the internet, or are experiencing homeslessness.

  • Those who do not trust the government or have low civic engagement and are difficult to persuade to participate.

  • People with a disability, either mental or physical.

The Census Bureau implements plans at the national level with objectives to increase higher participation rates. These efforts include everything from marketing via numerous media outlets to reducing language barriers by creating meaningful language translations and ensure cultural relevance — including 12 non-English languages for an internet response option — as well as hiring people who live in the community to work as enumerators (this means that people may speak a different language than one of the 60 that the Census is printed in).

Numerous organizations in Wisconsin and Minnesota are working to reach those who have been “hard to count” in the past. According to Lee, organizations doing this work in Minnesota include the MN Council on Foundations, State Demographic Center, and Minnesotans for the American Community Surveys. These groups have partnered with the Minnesota Census Mobilization Partnership.

Executive order 55 issued the creation of a Complete Count Committee for Wisconsin’s census process Oct. 28, 2019 to encourage full participation and ensure populations receive fair and equal representation in government. Minnesota created its first CCC in June 2018. Wisconsin partners are also provided many toolkits online at wicount.wi.gov to increase awareness, trust and participation for the upcoming census.