MERCER — In March, the U.S. Census bureau will begin mailing forms to households across the nation.
But preparations on the local level are beginning now. Mercer County Commissioner Matt McConnell said he met this week with regional census officials with the goal of making sure everyone is counted.
McConnell said he wants Mercer County residents to understand exactly what is at stake in the decennial count.
“It’s good to educate the folks,” he said.
The census, held every 10 years, is required under Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution. Initially, the census was used almost exclusively to determine representation in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Heading into next year’s 2020 Census, the stakes have become substantial in terms of financial resources. Data derived from the count is used to allocate hundreds of billions of dollars annually.
That includes a wide range of programs including CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and Medicaid. The census also determines spending on federal pass-through funding that goes from the federal government to the state government and allocated to the counties, based on population.
Depending on the program, more population means more money. In Mercer County, where about 55 percent of total expenditures this year come from state and federal funding, that could be substantial.
McConnell said he was told that the county could lose about $2,150 each year for every uncounted person. That said, analysis that puts a dollar value on people not counted can be misleading because different populations qualify for funding through different programs — senior citizens don’t affect Title I primary education funding, and elementary-age children aren’t considered for Medicare disbursals.
In “Counting for Dollars,” a 2019 report by George Washington University’s Institute of Public Policy found that Pennsylvania received about $39.18 billion in U.S. fiscal year 2016 in spending programs influenced by data in the 2010 census.
“So much is depending on that,” said Katherine David, from the Census Bureau’s Philadelphia region.
David said the department is working with county officials across the state to convince them of the importance of counting all residents — the U.S. Census counts not just citizens, but all residents, including foreign nationals in the country regardless of their legal residency status, living in the United States on April 1, 2020.
“It has to do with where you lay your head on April 1,” McConnell said.
The Census Bureau is legally prohibited from sharing census data, including legal residency status, with any other government agency.
Susan Licate, a spokeswoman in the bureau’s Philadelphia office, said the county-level outreach is the beginning of a concerted effort to count everyone.
“If they’re in the United States and we’re able to count them, we will count them,” she said. “We want to ensure that everybody is counted once and only once.”
The first contact is an invitation arrives at households in early March, ahead of the 10-question form. But residents also can fill out census forms online or by telephone. Guidance in filling out the form is available in 13 languages, plus English online, and English and 59 other languages by telephone.
Licate said the Census Bureau is working with libraries to assist people, including the homeless, with filling out the forms online. Finally, the bureau will send enumerators, equipped with electronic devices, to collect data from those who haven’t responded to previous outreach efforts.
David, who lives in Grove City and is working directly with Mercer County officials on preparation for the 2020 Census, said responding to the census is part of living in the United States.
“It’s in the Constitution,” she said. “It’s our civic duty, like making sure that you vote, and going to jury duty.”
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NOTE: This article has been edited to correct errors on the sequence of contact from the Census Bureau, the format of foreign-language directions, and to note that enumerators will carry electronic devices.