HELENA — People across Montana will begin receiving official mailers from the U.S. Census Bureau in less than a month – officially kicking off the count in the 2020 U.S. Census.
The federal government is set for its count of every person in the country, as required every ten years by the U.S. Constitution. Leaders say they have been preparing for a long time.
“The census really began ten years ago, but in earnest it began about two years ago,” said Josh Manning, the Census Bureau’s spokesperson for Montana.
Montana households will begin receiving letters with detailed information on how to respond to the census starting on March 12. The official “Census Day” will be April 1. Each respondent will tell the Census Bureau where they live as of that day.
Census takers will begin knocking on doors in April, doing follow-up “quality control” interviews with some residents and counting those who live in college residence halls, senior living facilities and other large groups.
Then in May, they will begin following up with homes that haven’t yet responded to the census.
The census includes less than ten questions for each person in a household -- including the number of people living there, as well as the names, ages, family status and race and national origin of each person and whether the home is owned or rented.
The US Census Bureau estimates it will take about ten minutes for most people to complete the questionnaire.
There will be some large changes to the census procedures this year as for the first time, many Americans will respond to the census online. Manning said the Census Bureau is taking extensive steps to ensure that the information will be secure and accurate.
“We’re hoping about 67% – two-thirds of the nation – takes it online,” he said. “That will limit the amount of door-knocking that we have to do, which will save the taxpayers a lot of money.”
The Census Bureau has also made a large push to hire temporary workers around Montana.
“The ideal situation is that people in Great Falls are counting people in Great Falls, that people in Browning are counting folks in Browning,” said Manning.
Manning said they have seen strong recruitment in the state’s larger cities and Indian reservations, but that it has been more challenging to fill positions in rural areas, especially in eastern Montana. The bureau is still taking applications for those jobs on its website .
The Census Bureau is also working with a number of partners to spread the word about the census, including the state government.
During last year’s state legislative session, lawmakers appropriated $100,000 to inform Montanans about the census. The state has commissioned public service announcements and other materials to encourage participation.
Complete Count Committees have also been created – one at the state level and more than 100 others through cities and counties, tribes, universities and other organizations. The committees can spread awareness about the census and help people get answers to their questions.
“What we know with the census is that, if people have any concerns about the census, if they can communicate about this with their neighbors and their friends and they can be informed that way, there’s much greater trust in the process,” said Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, who chairs the state Complete Count Committee.
Cooney said one concern leaders want to address is the issue of what will happen with the data the census collects.
Authorities point to federal law requiring that all personally identifiable information in the census be kept confidential – including from law enforcement and other government agencies and from landlords.
The state is also reminding Montanans that official census materials will never ask for money, Social Security numbers, credit card numbers or political affiliation.
The Montana Department of Commerce reported on Friday that some residents in Cascade County had received surveys that used the words “Census Document,” but were not actually affiliated with the Census Bureau.
The results of the census could have big effects on Montana over the next ten years.
Leaders estimate the state receives about $2,000 a year in federal funding for each Montana resident – and that money could be lost for every person not counted.
The updated data collected in this year’s census will be used in planning and funding infrastructure projects and public services, and in drawing new districts for the Montana Legislature.
In addition, some analysis ahead of the census has suggested Montana’s population may have increased fast enough to earn the state a second seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“It’s ten minutes, and it’s ten years,” said Manning. “That’s the simplest equation there is.”
You can find more information about the 2020 Census, including how to respond and the questions that will be asked, on the Census Bureau website.
Learn more about the impact census results will have on Montana -- and find organizations that can assist you -- at Montana’s Census website.