Completing the census has never been easier. Here’s why you should make your voice heard.

computer user fills out census
For the first time ever, residents can fill out the census form online. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau)

Cursing the potholes that rouse loved ones from their slumber?

Us too, Twenty One Pilots. But there’s another way.

Every 10 years, the U.S. Census Bureau attempts to tally the population of the nation — from the cul-de-sacs of suburbia to the remote villages of Alaska. Data from the census affect key parts of civic life, from district lines to funding for schools, hospitals, and, yes, pothole repairs.

Now, for the first time ever, you can fill out the census form online. And the Library has joined a campuswide effort to ensure Cal makes its mark.

“Whether you want to impact our world today or want to be recorded for future historians — or both — the UC Berkeley Library welcomes you to be a part of (the census) and encourages you to be counted,” said Elizabeth Dupuis, senior associate university librarian for educational initiatives, user services, and strategic projects.

(Prior to California’s shelter-in-place order, the Library had set up private kiosks on campus for taking the census. Statewide Database, a Berkeley Law-based organization that handles census data used for redrawing local, state, and congressional districts across California, had provided trainings to student employees in the Library to help them answer questions from patrons.)

In light of the coronavirus, the deadline to fill out the census has been extended to Aug. 14.

Here are five things you should know about the census and its impact. 

1. Your participation in the census affects some $675 billion in federal funding per year.

“All of our public services really boil down to how accurate our census count is — everything from school lunch programs to funding for emergency response like fire departments, which, of course, is a big deal right now in California,” said Jaime Clark, redistricting data and access coordinator for Statewide Database.

At UC Berkeley, the impact of the census is palpable. The data affect funding for everything from Pell grants and housing assistance to AC Transit and BART.

According to Esther Gulli, executive director of UC Berkeley’s Government and Community Relations office, the community stands to lose $10,000 over the next decade for every person not counted. 

“We only have one shot at this,” Gulli said.

(For more information on how to be counted, see this FAQ.)

2. Political representation depends on population — and California’s is dropping.

As housing costs skyrocket and birthrates fall, California’s population growth has reached historic lows. As a result, many predict the state may lose a seat in the House of Representatives and, in turn, an Electoral College vote.

Lillian Castillo-Speed
Lillian Castillo-Speed, head librarian at the Ethnic Studies Library, says taking the census is how one’s voice gets heard. (Photo by Violet Carter for the UC Berkeley Library)

That’s why participation this year is so important, Clark said. (In 2010, only 73 percent of households in California responded to the census by mail, according to the census website.)

“In order to have a voice, to be part of this particular electoral system, you have to be counted,” said Lillian Castillo-Speed, head librarian at the Ethnic Studies Library. “In this particular movement, it is a political, democratic choice to be part of (the census) — but people need to know that they have that choice.

“This is how you get counted,” she added. “This is how you get represented. This is how your voice gets heard.”

3. There will not be a citizenship question on the 2020 census.

Last summer, the Supreme Court blocked the Trump administration’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the census in a 5-4 ruling. The administration dropped the effort entirely a few days later.

But some worry a chilling effect has already taken hold.

“The issue was that there was very little coverage when the court decided it wasn’t going to be on the census,” said Melodie Deisher ’19, who taught a DeCal, or student-led course, on the census last year. “By then, the fear had been aroused, … and there wasn’t much follow-up of, ‘Hey, don’t worry everyone, it’s not going to be on the census — fill it out as you would.’

“That’s disappointing.”

In fact, researchers at the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, predict a dramatic undercount of the country’s Hispanic and immigrant communities. Researchers point to not only the citizenship question but also a range of factors that have historically limited participation from immigrants and people of color, including language barriers and less stable living conditions. Renters, for instance, are harder to count than homeowners — a group that is disproportionately white.

4. The census has become a political battlefield.

The Republican National Committee has in recent months sent out fundraising materials branded as census surveys — a move that Democratic lawmakers denounced as an attempt to stir confusion around the form. In March, Facebook removed campaign ads for President Donald Trump that prompted users to “take the official 2020 Congressional District Census today,” saying the ads violated the platform’s policies against disinformation and interference with the census.

Some have also raised eyebrows at the Trump administration’s tightened budget for the census. (A lawsuit in New York has accused the administration of undermining efforts to capture hard-to-count groups such as black, Latino, and Asian communities, which tend to vote Democrat.)

5. Responses to the census are confidential and protected by law.

census info on a white board
Jaime Clark, redistricting data and access coordinator for Statewide Database, describes the complex road to the 2020 census. (Photo by Jami Smith for the UC Berkeley Library)

As mandated by Title 13 of the U.S. Code, responses to the census can never be used against an individual by any federal agency or court of law. In addition, Census Bureau workers take a lifetime oath to protect respondents’ privacy and confidentiality under threat of a $250,000 fine, prison time, or both.

“The most important thing to assuage fears (about the census) is learning about it,” said Deisher, who now works at the Statewide Database. “This is what (the census) is for — this is how the government is present in our daily lives and how it influences what we’re doing here.”

“I want funding for my state — I live here,” Deisher said. “And one of the ways I can do my part is to fill out the census form.”