Impact of the 2020 Census

Support Local Journalism


Notices for the 2020 Census started going out in March. For the first time in history everyone was to be able to respond online, by phone, or by mail. Now the efforts to complete the census are moving to door to door interviews with those who have yet to respond.

Gem County has been among the most responsive counties in the State so far this year but nearly 20 percent of the population is still unaccounted for.

A census aims to count the entire population of a country, and at the location where each person usually lives. The census asks questions of people in homes and group living situations, including how many people live or stay in each home, and the sex, age and race of each person.

While notices went out in March and over 75% of housing units have been accounted for, there is still more work to be done. “This is your last chance to respond on your own, either online, by phone or by mail, before a census taker visits your home to assist you in responding,” said the U.S. Census Bureau in an email sent to the Messenger Index.

The census shows that every town is an important part of the American story, even the little ones, including Emmett. Responding to the census provides data that can attract new businesses and the jobs that come with them. This can be extremely helpful since “70 percent of Gem County commutes for work,” according to the Gem County Chamber of Commerce.

Apportionment of seats in the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives and even electoral college votes in a Presidential election are determined by census numbers.

The data also informs citizens where over $675 billion in federal funding is spent each year in states and communities. That includes money for things like Medicare Part B, Special education, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Cooperative Extension Service, Substance Abuse Prevention, Treatment Block Grant and water and waste disposal systems for rural communities. Not responding to the census means taking the risk of missing out on important funding that benefits the community directly.

Although the census may seem relatively new, the process dates back all the way to early biblical accounts.

It wouldn’t be until 1753 when a more modern approach to census taking would occur. Parliament considered a bill for “taking and registering an annual Account of the total number of people” in order to “ascertain the collective strength of the nation.” Two years later, in Pennsylvania, Benjamin Franklin published “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind.”

“Franklin had every reason to want to count the people in Britain’s North American colonies,” said Jill Lepore, American Chronicles reporter for The New Yorker. “He calculated that they numbered about a million, roughly the population of Scotland, which had forty-five members in the House of Commons and sixteen peers in the House of Lords. How many had the Americans? None.”

To make this matter of representation mathematical, enumeration of the people, every ten years, is mandated by the U.S. Constitution. There would be no more than one member of Congress for every thirty thousand people. The Constitution also mandates that any direct tax levied on the states must be proportional to population. Although the federal government hardly ever levies taxes directly. Instead, it’s more likely to provide money and services to the states, and these too are almost always allocated in proportion to population. So the accuracy of the census has huge implications.

Under the terms of the Constitution, everyone in the United States was to be counted, except “Indians not taxed” (a phrase that both excluded Native peoples from U.S. citizenship and served as a de-facto acknowledgment of the sovereignty of Native nations). Every person would be counted, and there were three kinds: “free persons”; persons “bound to service for a term of years”; and “all other persons,” the last was a euphemism for enslaved people, who were to be counted as three-fifths of a free person.

“It was a compromise between Northern delegates (who didn’t want to count them at all, to stop the South from gaining additional seats in Congress) and Southern delegates (who wanted to count them, for the sake of those seats)—a compromise, that is, between zero and one,” said Lepore.

After the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery—and, with it, the three-fifths clause and the distinction between “free persons,” persons “bound in service,” and “all other persons”—the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed the equal protection of the laws to “any person” within the jurisdiction of the United States.

The rise and influence of eugenics was made possible by a growing capacity to count people by way of machines. The 1890 U.S. census, the first to ask about “race,” was also the first to use the Hollerith Electric Tabulating Machine, which, turning every person into a punched card, sped up not only counting but also sorting, and cross-tabulation. (Herman Hollerith, the census analyst and M.I.T. professor who invented the machine, founded the company that later became I.B.M.)

Despite the whirlwind of a year so far, more than a hundred and fifty countries will undertake a census in 2020. After the first U.S. census in 1790, fifty-four nations, including Argentina, in 1853, and Canada, in 1867, adopted requirements for a decennial census in their constitutions. By 1964, censuses regularly counted ninety-five percent of the world’s population, producing tallies that led both to panics about overpopulation and to the funding of population-control organizations. The United Nations Population Division predicts a total world population of 7.8 billion by 2020.

“It was the great achievement of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century census-takers to break that nexus and persuade people—the public on one side and their colleagues in government on the other—that states could collect data on their citizens without using it against them,” said economist Andrew Whitby in “The Sum of the People: How the Census Has Shaped Nations, from the Ancient World to the Modern Age.”

If fearful of your information being shared, know that responding to the census is safe and your personal information is kept confidential by law. Under current laws, your answers to the 2020 census cannot be seen by anyone outside the Census Bureau until April 2, 2092.

On the ground representatives of the Census Bureau are currently visiting homes in Emmett to fulfill their required counts. You may be able to ask for a second chance to input your information online rather than respond directly in person. Additional information and access for completing a census form are available online at

Load comments