LA Explained: The 2020 Census

The official U.S. Census form, pictured on March 18, 2010. (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)

The 2020 Census is coming to Los Angeles! (And the rest of the country.) The federal government is required by law, every 10 years, to count every person in the United States — and that means you. The count, or census, can have massive impacts on program funding and fair Congressional representation. The guide will help demystify the process and explain why it's such a big deal for Los Angeles.

WHAT EXACTLY IS THE CENSUS?

It's a population count.

WHO GETS COUNTED?

Every person in the United States is supposed to be counted. It's like a snapshot of the country at that moment — a head count. It's distributed by address. Your name does not show up on the envelope, but there will be a place on the form to write in the names of the people who live there.

WHAT ABOUT PEOPLE EXPERIENCING HOMELESSNESS OR LIVING IN PLACES WITHOUT ADDRESSES?

The Census Bureau is planning to count people living or staying in homeless shelters, group quarters and eating regularly at soup kitchens. There is also a plan to count people living in transitory locations, like RV campgrounds, hotels, motels, who do not have a usual home.

HOW OFTEN DOES IT HAPPEN?

Every 10 years. You'll hear it called the decennial census.

WHY DO WE DO THIS?

Because it's required by Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution.

WHEN'S THE NEXT ONE?

The deadline to submit your census form is April 1, 2020. If you don't turn it in, expect census workers to be knocking on your door as early as May 13, 2020 through July 24, 2020.

WHAT'S AT STAKE?

The tally determines how much money your local and state government will receive from the federal government. There is more than 800 billion dollars at stake. The census also determines how many seats your state gets in the U.S. House of Representatives.

WHY SHOULD I CARE ABOUT SEATS?

A year after the census, per the new population data, lines are redrawn in congressional and state districts. This affects the number of seats. It's called "redistricting" and it has implications for representation.

OK, NOW TELL ME MORE ABOUT THAT FEDERAL MONEY.

The census data informs funding decisions to federal programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides food stamps for nearly 9 percent of households in LA County. So having an accurate count has real world implications for people who rely on federal programs, locally. And the money won't be reevaluated for another ten years — until after the next census.

U.S. Census worker, Monique Stence, (L) gives census bags to Sandra Gutierrez (C) and Maria Martinez as they blanket a neighborhood during the "March to the Mailbox" effort on April 10, 2010 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

WHO ELSE USES CENSUS DATA?

Businesses use the data to know where to build new work spaces and create jobs. Foundations, like the California Community Foundation, and philanthropic groups depend on the most accurate data possible to know how to allocate funding and know where services are needed. Federal programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Head Start and the National School Lunch Program use the information to better serve communities.

WHY SHOULD I PARTICIPATE?

The state is expected to lose federal funding to the tune of approximately $1,950 per person, per year, for ten years, for every person who is missed in the 2020 census.

Also it's illegal if you don't fill it out.

IT'S ILLEGAL TO DODGE THE CENSUS FORM?

Well, yes. It is a federal crime. But you're probably not going to get prosecuted.

WHAT HAPPENS IF I LIE?

Skipping census questions or giving false answers can result in a fine. But, again, the other possible consequences include minimizing the amount of money allocated for your community and/or inaccurate representation.

WHY IS THE 2020 CENSUS CONTROVERSIAL?

Because the U.S. Department of Commerce wants to put a question on the census asking "Is this person a citizen of the United States?" There are currently six lawsuits trying to stop the question from being added. One judge has already ruled against the Trump administration.

WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL IN ASKING?

States, cities and immigrant advocate groups argue that the citizenship question will scare away permanent residents, naturalized citizens, unauthorized immigrants and mixed-status homes from filling out the census. In LA County, there are 1.05 million unauthorized immigrants, which is is prompting concerns that there may be an undercount. While California is not expected to lose congressional seats, the question could affect the number of the house seats in states with large immigrant populations.

The official U.S. Census form, pictured on March 18, 2010. (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)

HAS THERE EVER BEEN A CITIZENSHIP QUESTION ON THE CENSUS?

The question has been used in the long form census since 1970 and the American Community Survey since 2005, which most people don't get because it goes to a small sample.

WHEN WAS IT ON THE CENSUS MOST PEOPLE GET?

It was last used in the decennial census in 1950.

SO, ARE THEY ADDING THE QUESTION OR NOT?

TBD. In April, the Supreme Court will hear whether the administration can add the question to the census. The question will be part of a nationwide census test on July 1, 2019 to approximately 480,000 households.

WHAT ELSE IS DIFFERENT ABOUT THIS CENSUS?

It's the first one ever you can fill out online. You can also respond by phone and paper will be available, but it'll primarily be online. Nearly every household in the country will receive an invitation through the mail to respond to the census in the mail.

IS AN ONLINE CENSUS A PRIVACY ISSUE?

The switch to online has some worried about privacy and access to a computer or internet. 371,516 people in L.A. County (11.3 percent) do not have a computer, and 645,718 people (19.6 percent) do not have an internet subscription.

WHAT IF I DON'T HAVE ACCESS TO A COMPUTER OR THE INTERNET TO FILL OUT THE CENSUS?

L.A. County and the City of L.A. are planning to have census action kiosks, which would be physical locations with regular office hours found in a public place to access information about the census or fill it out. A subcommittee talked about how to identify potential locations at a meeting.

WHEN CAN I START USING A KIOSK?

The goal is to have them operational by March 2020.

WHO COULD POSSIBLY BE MISSING FROM THE COUNT?

People who are hard to interview, hard to locate, hard to persuade and hard to contact are considered hard-to-count populations, by the Census Bureau. Here is a list of a few groups California has identified as hard to count:

  • Households without broadband internet
  • Nonfamily households (homemates/roommates)
  • Renters
  • Native American and tribal populations
  • Crowded/multi-generational households
  • Immigrants/Foreign born
  • Adults who are not high school graduates
  • Low-income households
  • Unemployed
  • Children under five

BUT L.A. COUNTY IS PRETTY GOOD AT COUNTING EVERYONE, RIGHT?

Sorry, no. L.A. County is considered the hardest-to-count county in the United States of America There are 88 cities from Lancaster to Long Beach and the South Los Angeles region is known to have a low response score for the census. That means that the area has a low census mail return rate.

L.A. County is also hard to count because of its diversity of languages and immigrant populations and its non-traditional housing situations like back houses or basements.

WHY ARE YOUNG KIDS HISTORICALLY UNDERCOUNTED.

2.2 million children under the age of five were not counted in the last census. A Census Bureau task force is convinced there isn't one single cause, but one thing contributing to the undercount could be the growing number of hard-to-count households. The count is for everyone in the household.

HOW ABOUT KIDS IN L.A. COUNTY?

The 2010 census saw an undercount of nearly 400,000 young Latino children under the age of five in the United States. L.A. County alone made up 12 percent of the net undercount of Latino children in the entire country. One reason for the undercount is that many young Latino kids are concentrated in hard-to-count neighborhoods, according to a NALEO report. They also found some Latino respondents were reluctant to fill out the census.

WE STARTED EARLY THIS TIME.

L.A. County started talking about the census three years before 2020 census. That's a huge difference from the county starting just a year before the last one. California has budgeted $154.3 million for census work (like outreach, media campaigns, administrative costs, address updates, etc.) including Governor Newsom's $54 million in the 2019-20 budget.

HOW MUCH OF THAT MONEY IS L.A. GETTING?

L.A. County is expected to get $9.39 million, but it's not clear yet how it will be split up among the 88 cities.

I'M STILL WORRIED ABOUT SHARING MY INFORMATION WITH THE GOVERNMENT.

Under law, the federal government can't use census information for any purpose other than statistical purposes. Data can't be identifiable for one person and anyone who is not an employee of the Census Bureau can't examine individual reports.

CAN LAW ENFORCEMENT USE MY INFORMATION?

No. Your personal data cannot be shared with law enforcement agencies.

Nilda Borroto (L) and Maria Perales show off their new census hats given to them by census workers taking part in the "March to the Mailbox" effort on April 10, 2010 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

HOW DO I KNOW CENSUS WORKERS ACTUALLY WORK FOR THE CENSUS BUREAU?

If you're worried that the person knocking on your day isn't a legitimate census worker, you can ask for their name and look them up on the census worker directory.

MAYBE I WANT TO BE A CENSUS WORKER?

Ok. You have a few options. Enumerators are the census workers who go door-to-door to fill out the census for the people who didn't self-respond. There are also administrative positions in offices that are opening between January to March of 2019.

Positions pay between $17 to $21 per hour in L.A. County. There are full-time and part-time temporary positions available

ANYTHING ELSE I SHOULD KNOW?

Yes, so much more. We will continue to update this guide as we approach the 2020 census. Do you have questions we can help you answer? Ask us below.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that names do not appear on the census form. They do. LAist regrets the error.