The once-a-decade U.S. Census is underway, and the willingness of people to participate in the national head count can have a big impact on their lives and those of their loved ones.

Not just this year or next, but every year from now until 2030.

The founding fathers thought a lot about taxation and representation. They believed that a complete and accurate count of all persons living in the U.S.A., citizen or not, was so critical that they put it in the U.S. Constitution.

The founding fathers were also serious. Everyone in the 50 states, D.C., and a number of U.S. territories is required by law to respond and give truthful answers, although it has been decades since the Census Bureau prosecuted anyone.

Schools, road and bridge repairs and maintenance, public health programs, fire departments, senior citizen programs, and law enforcement agencies all depend on accurate and up-to-date census data for funding.

“If you want to complain about potholes in the streets, you need to get counted so we can get full funding,” said Melissa Quinones, who heads the City of Lebanon’s Complete Count Committee and is an assistant to Mayor Sherry Capello.

The census also insures that Pennsylvanians get fair representation in Harrisburg and Washington. Legislative districts can be redrawn, created, or eliminated based on population changes over ten years.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s main website,, and its special 2020 Census companion site,, are detailed and comprehensive. They contain lots of information beyond the scope of this article, which simply tries to answer some basic questions about the census and to report on local efforts to get a full and accurate count.

What are local officials and groups doing to get a full count?

The U.S. Census Bureau is working with state and local officials to assure a complete count. That includes all municipalities in Lebanon County that want to work with the bureau.

Quinones and Janelle Mendoff head the City of Lebanon’s Complete Count Committee. Working off 2010 census data, especially response rates from 10 years ago, they are giving special attention to the city’s northwest quadrant, which had a 2010 response rate of under 73%. That’s in the bottom 20% of 2010 nationwide rates.

Census Bureau data for the county shows other 2010 low response pockets in some areas adjacent to the city and in the county’s northern tier.

Quinones said that 84.1% of the county’s households mailed back their 2010 census forms – “self-responded” – in 2010. That’s not the same as saying 84.1% of the county’s population self-responded. Census enumerators had to visit the remaining households, a costly and time consuming procedure.

The city’s 2020 complete count committee includes representatives of over a dozen organizations, including the Lebanon School District, Lebanon Family Health Services, the YMCA, and the Lebanon Rescue Mission.

It has been meeting regularly since last October to plan walk-in response events, at which computers (and computer help) will be available for online responses, social, print, and broadcast media campaigns, and posters in prominent public locations.

Guadalupe Barba and former city councilman Cornell Wilson are active in the Hispanic community organization Juntos de Lebanon, a member the city’s complete count committee. Wilson said Juntos has applied for a grant to help promote a full count in the Hispanic community

Barba’s restaurant, La Placita, 922 Cumberland Street, will hold at least three walk-in response events on Mar. 22, Mar. 29, and Apr. 5, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. They’ll be open to anyone, and computer and language help, as well as free food, will be available.

How will the 2020 Census be taken?

There will be three ways to respond: Online, by phone, or by mail.

Between March 12 and 20, households will receive an official “invitation” from the Census Bureau that will detail how to complete the census, phone numbers to call, and website addresses. Once its received, you can respond whichever way you choose.

An actual census worker, known as an “enumerator,” will knock on your door in May or June if, and only if, you haven’t already responded in April.

All households will receive a language assistance sheet with toll-free numbers for 12 languages. They can call those numbers to ask questions and give their answers by phone in the language of their choice.

Additional help is available online in 59 non-English languages.

Who is supposed to be counted?

The law requires the Census Bureau to count all persons in the U.S. who live in residential structures, including prisons, dormitories, and “group quarters” in the ten year census. People counted include citizens, legal immigrants, non-citizen long-term visitors, and illegal or undocumented immigrants.

The Census Bureau will have special procedures to personally count the homeless and people living in large group settings.

What are the questions?

There are nine questions, and they are the same whether responding by mail, phone, or online. They cover number of people in the household, name, sex, age, race, type of residence, and relationships between household members.

You can see the actual 2020 mail-in questionnaire here (pdf) or here (web page).

Local officials and volunteers at local “complete count committees” contacted by LebTown all stressed the importance of the head of household answering all questions for every person in the household.

There are no citizenship questions in the 2020 census.

Are the answers confidential?

Federal law since 1954 has prevented the Census Bureau from sharing any personally identifiable information gathered by the census with any outside person or organization, even other agencies of the federal government, including immigration and law enforcement.

Wrongful disclosure of census data by census workers can result in five years in jail and a $5,000 fine.

2020 U.S. Census timetable of significant dates

March 12 – 20: Households will begin receiving official Census Bureau mail with detailed information on how to respond to the 2020 Census online, by phone, or by mail.

March 30 – April 1: The Census Bureau will count people who are experiencing homelessness, by contacting people in shelters, at soup kitchens and mobile food vans, on the streets, and at non-sheltered, outdoor locations such as tent encampments.

April 1: Census Day is observed nationwide. This is the date that counts. When you respond to the census, you tell the Census Bureau where you and your household members live as of April 1, 2020.

Later in April: Census takers will begin visiting college students who live on campus, people living in senior centers, and others who live among large groups of people.

May – July: Census takers will begin visiting homes that haven’t responded to the 2020 Census to help make sure everyone is counted.

December: Deadline for Census Bureau to deliver counts to the President and Congress as required by law.

March 31, 2021: Deadline for the Census Bureau to send redistricting counts to states. This information is used to redraw legislative districts based on population changes.

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Chris Coyle writes primarily on government, the courts, and business. He retired as an attorney at the end of 2018, after concentrating for nearly four decades on civil and criminal litigation and trials. A career highlight was successfully defending a retired Pennsylvania state trooper who was accused,...


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