Six ways the 2020 census will change your life

A national census only comes around once every decade, but this year’s has truly been special.
When the 2020 US census launched back in March, it was the first survey of its kind that could be filled out online. Typically, the federal government mails paper ballots to each household to get a general understanding of how density, age, income, ethnicity, and language are changing in the 50 states, plus Washington, DC, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. It then follows up by dispatching census takers to every city, rural outpost, reservation, and backcountry camp to interview non-respondents. This is all done by July so that results can be compiled, fact checked, and delivered to Congress later that fall.
The move to online responses this year should have quickened the 230-year-old process-but the COVID-19 crisis pushed the count deadline to October 31. The US Census Bureau planned to have the final data ready by December 31 of this year, and said it would commit extra resources to make sure every resident was counted. But as of this month, only 63 percent of the population had been polled, with 56 million households still unreported.
Then came a surprising announcement. In early August NPR reported that the deadlines on the census website had been changed to September 30, prompting the bureau director to explain that the count was being sped up “without sacrificing completeness.” He also mentioned that the government had hired additional field agents to fill the gaps in responses (with proper social-distancing protocols).
That leaves a little more than a month for people to either wait for the knock at their door or submit their own answers. For those who have access to a computer and internet connection, the process takes just five minutes. Simply plug in the 12-digit census code that was mailed to you by the bureau, or request one online. The survey asks a dozen questions for each member of the household and can be done in Spanish if needed. It also skips the citizenship query, as per a Supreme Court decision last summer.
Being counted in the census means being counted for the government’s biggest decisions. Health care policy, school budgets, park openings, and affordable housing all revolve around the numbers drawn from the national survey. The data is made publicly available, too, so that local legislators, academics, industry leaders, and social reformers can analyze and act on it as well.
Still dubious of the census and its significance? Let’s look at how it plays into scientific research-and how that research helps every single US resident in the long run.
Health care access
The pandemic has revealed some serious shortcomings in the US health care system. But without the census, access to hospitals, therapists, reproductive clinics, drugs, and other medical essentials would be even more restricted. Doctors and insurance companies use the demographic information from the survey to build new facilities in areas of need. Epidemiologists, on the other hand, use it to predict hotspots of disease, like influenza and HIV.
“Where you live impacts how healthy you are,” says Jennifer St. Sauver, a professor of epidemiology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. She uses the US census and American Community Surveys to pinpoint health care deserts in the Midwest. That kind of local insight, she adds, can be pivotal when managing rural outbreaks. “Even having an accurate count of who lives where is hugely important,” St. Sauver says. “If we’re seeing 300 cases of COVID-19 in our region, we need to know how big that is. We need a number to divide by.” Over the next decade, she expects the gulf in medical resources widen, especially in places where people are living longer and battling chronic conditions.
Kids’ nutrition
Like health care deserts, food deserts can be traced back to a snarl of long-standing systemic issues that create a bottleneck of resources and opportunities in one part of the country. While its generally tough for low-income communities to get their hands on healthy meals, shortages in fresh veggies and fruits often have a disproportionate affect on students, who depend on n…