2020 US Census | Participating in the Census

Importance of Census

Every ten years the US Census Bureau does a full population count of everyone living in the United States. The Census is mandated by the US Constitution and your response is required by law. Results directly effect your life in this country for the next 10 years, as the Census determines:

State and local community funding through 2030
The federal government primarily uses population counts to know where to allocate public funding -- for schools, hospitals, infrastructure, parks, disaster relief planning, public housing and many other sectors that require public funding.

If an area within the US is not properly counted, that area will not receive proportional funding respective to their population for the next decade, and funds will go elsewhere.

House seats, Electoral College points for each state
Census numbers effect the amount of House seats each state gets in Congress, and therefore the number of Electoral College points each state can be awarded in Presidential elections. 

435 U.S. House of Representative seats are divided between all 50 states following every Census, proportional to every state's share of the national population. And electoral college points are awarded to each state based on their number of House reps + two Senators. Southern and western states are expected to grow in population share in 2020, but everyone needs to participate for these states to acquire their fair share of governmental say.

How maps are redrawn for voting power (Redistricting)
Population counts are used to redraw congressional, state and local district boundaries, to ensure each person's vote is as close to one person = one vote as possible. If you don't participate, your vote will count less when the maps are redrawn in March of 2021.

How the Census Bureau Contacts People

Most U.S. residents are contacted by the U.S. Census Bureau by a letter in the mail in mid-March of 2020. This letter will give you instructions for filling out the Census questionnaire online or over-the-phone, or you'll get a paper questionnaire to fill out the old fashioned way. In some cases, you'll receive both an online invitation and a paper questionnaire. They can contact or count you in other ways too, if need be.

Hand Deliveries (Non-Permanent Residents)
Not everyone can be contacted by mail. Hand deliveries are carried out by Census workers for those living in mobile homes, residents in areas with recent natural disasters, or households that use a P.O. Box as their main address. This accounts for ~4% of people.

In-Person Interviews (Remote Locations)
Approximately 1% of people can't be contacted by mail or hand delivery, for other practicable reasons. If you live in the more remote parts of Alaska, Maine or some American Indian reservations, the Census will send a person to conduct an in-person interview. 

Homeless People
Census workers count homeless people in-person; workers will visit homeless shelters, soup kitchens, food vans and otherwise just walk the streets in every area they can to get a full accounting of the homeless population.

People That Live on Ships (Seafarers)
A special Census is created for people that live on ships, without any permanent residence. The U.S. Census Bureau sends all ships with seafarers a unique questionnaire for them to fill out.

Receiving a Census Form

Most everyone gets a letter from the US Census Bureau to fill out their questionnaire in mid-March (between March 12th and March 20th). But the first letter you receive will be slightly different depending on your location's demographics. It will come in one of these four ways:

1) They will send out online invitations only, at first, for urban areas with easy access to the internet, where they expect most, if not all households will be able to complete the questionnaire online.

2) They will send out a paper questionnaire and an online invitation to any area they believe has limited internet access, or has a sizable population of senior citizens. Roughly 22% of all people contacted will be in this category, where you will get two letters and can choose either method.

3) They will send out bilingual online invitations to areas with easy internet access that they know has a sizable Spanish-speaking population. 

4) They will send out bilingual paper questionnaires and bilingual online invitations to areas with limited internet access and a sizable Spanish-speaking population.

Completing a Census Form

You can complete your 2020 Census questionnaire either online, by phone or through the mail. Whichever method you choose, the questionnaire will be asking a few general questions about how many people live in your household as of April 1, 2020.

You need to include all children, roommates, friends, family members and anyone else living in your residence, even if just temporarily. They are looking for a head count of everyone and chose the date of April 1st. 

Other questions they will ask:

  • If you are renting or own your home
  • What is your phone number
  • Name of adult that pays rent or owns home (that will be 'Person 1'). If that adult doesn't live there, you can list any other adult as Person 1
  • Sex, age, date of birth, ethnicity and race of every person in the household
  • If people you counted usually live there or not, with secondary options if not
  • How each person is related to Person 1

Notes: Anyone 15 years or older can complete the Census questionnaire. And if you have more than six people living in the same household, there is a place on the bottom of the paper form to add an additional four people. If you have more than 10 people in one household, you will need to use the online questionnaire.

Online Instructions
Most people with a permanent residence will receive a letter in the mail that includes simple instructions on filling out their questionnaire online. That letter will come with a 12-digit Census ID number. And you will use that number to login to the online questionnaire.

You can complete the online questionnaire in multiple languages including -- English, Spanish, Chinese (Simplified), Vietnamese, Korean, Russian, Arabic, Tagalog, Polish, French, Haitian Creole, Portuguese or Japanese.

If you don't have a Census ID number but want to fill out the form online, you still can; there's an option when logging on that reads - 'If you do not have a Census ID, click here'. 

It will ask where you were living as of April 1, 2020. You enter your address and if the address is verified you will be able to fill out the questionnaire online.

Over-the-phone Instructions
You can easily fill out the Census questionnaire on the phone by calling 844-330-2020 during the hours of 7am to 2am EST, any day of the week. They also have toll-free phone numbers for many different languages. 

Note: The Census Bureau might call you back at the number you provide if they need to follow up on information you gave them. All information is entirely confidential and they will never ask you for financial information like bank accounts or ask for your Social Security number; do not give sensitive information out to anyone who claims to be calling about the Census.

In the mail (paper questionnaire) Instructions
You can fill out a paper questionnaire and return it free of postage, using the return envelope included in your letter from the U.S. Census Bureau. If you misplace that return envelope, the return address is:

U.S. Census Bureau
National Processing Center
1201 E 10th Street
Jeffersonville, IN 47132

**You cannot use a pencil to fill out the paper form; you must use a blue or black ink pen. 

All households will eventually receive a paper questionnaire, or census form, in the mail. Paper forms first go out to rural areas or areas with a sizable elderly population. But if you fail to respond to your online invitation, you will shortly receive reminders and a paper form. More details on that just below.

What Happens if You Ignore Census

If you don't fill out your Census questionnaire in due time, after receiving your first letter, don't worry. The U.S. Census Bureau will contact you many, many times after that.

They hire approximately half a million people to work on collecting these questionnaires throughout 2020, and they are required to remind you of your legal duty to report your census information multiple times. 

Here's exactly how many times they will contact you after the first mailing attempt:

1) They will send you another letter, as a reminder
2) They will send you a reminder post card
3) They will send you a reminder letter and a paper questionnaire 
4) They will send you yet another post card reminder

If enough time passes and you don't respond to any of that, they will send a Census worker to your residence to conduct an in-person interview, and not just once either:

5) A Census worker will knock on your door to do an in-person questionnaire
6) Another Census worker will come for the same reason
7) Yet again, they will come to conduct an in-person questionnaire

8) If you ignore all of these attempts to collect the necessary information they try a fourth time and if no response, they will resort to knocking on your neighbor's door for the same info. 

9 & 10) They will try your house and your neighbor's house two more times

If all ten attempts fail, the U.S. Census Bureau will give up on your household and consider it 'uninhabited'.

Census Deadlines & Important Dates

Census deadlines have been revised in response to COVID-19 and it is now strongly recommended you fill out your Census form online to comply with stay-at-home orders and other social distancing guidelines. You don't have to wait for a letter in the mail after April 1st either, as long as you go online and provide your address.

Census workers will be collecting questionnaires throughout 2020, with a final deadline of December 31st, 2020. They will be operating in phases with these time frames:

Stages of Census Collection

Start Date

End Date

Response from Households

March 12th

August 14th

In-person deliveries

March 29th

May 1st

Remote Interviews in northern Maine and SE Alaska

March 16thMay 14th

Assistance at grocery stores & community centers

April 13thAugust 14th

Early follow-up (starting with college students)

May 7thAugust 14th

Follow-up (workers knocking on your door)

May 28thAugust 14th

Nursing homes, prisons, student housing

April 16thJune 19th

Homeless population

April 29thMay 1st

People staying at campgrounds, RV parks, marinas, hotels

April 23rdMay 18th

Census Results

The U.S. Census Bureau concludes most attempts to collect census numbers by August 14th, 2020 as they will only have a few months left in the year to compile all the collected data, and send off state population results to the President.

The deadline to deliver each state's 2020 population count is December 31st, 2020. And these state population numbers will be used to determine how many U.S. House of Representative seats each state receives, of the 435 available, based on each state's share of the new national population.

The coronavirus pandemic does not currently effect the deadline date.

The U.S. Census Bureau then has until April 1st of 2021 to deliver the local counts each state needs to complete their redistricting maps (redrawing of voting maps based on population count for congressional, state and local district boundaries).