If you haven’t filled out your online census form yet, Wednesday is Census Day, meaning there’s no better time to cross this important civic duty off your to-do list.

As usual, California is slightly ahead of the curve on this one, with 38% of the state having already answered the call. Nationally that number is at 35%. Alameda County is at about 43% and Berkeley is at 42%.

The chief goal of the 10-year census is to count every person in the nation “once, only once and in the right place.” Responding to the census is required by law. The count helps the federal government distribute $675 billion for vital programs related to housing, schools, roads, disaster preparedness and more. The figures are used to redraw the legislative boundaries that determine the number of congressional seats each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives.

An undercount means fewer resources and less representation, which is why California budgeted $187 million for its 2020 census operation. As it stands, California is projected to lose a seat for the first time ever because its population growth has been slower than what’s been seen in other states.

The 2020 census is the first online census the federal government has undertaken. What that means is that the bulk of the responses will come in through the census website, though it’s also easy to call the Census Bureau to provide answers by phone, particularly for those needing language assistance or other help.

People who don’t fill out the form online will eventually get a paper form in the mail. If you don’t fill that out, you’ll likely get a visit from a census taker, though the schedule for that outreach has been somewhat upended by the coronavirus pandemic. The Census Bureau suspended its outreach in March and more changes to the timeline could be coming.

So what’s on the form? It’s pretty basic. The census asks for the name of each person living in your household — this includes babies! — and whether the residents rent or own. For each resident, the census also collects sex, age and race data, along with how each person is related. On average, the form takes about 10 minutes to fill out. For people living alone, it’s much faster.

Generally, students who attend college would fill out their own forms in the city where they spend most of the year. Now that many students have been sent home due to COVID-19, it’s likely to cause some confusion. The main point to remember is that people should fill out the form based on where they spend the bulk of the year.

All of this information is confidential: The Census Bureau is prohibited from sharing it with any other branch of government, including any federal law enforcement agency. The penalty for wrongful disclosure is up to $250,000, imprisonment for up to five years or both.

“We will never share your information with immigration enforcement agencies such as ICE, law enforcement agencies such as the FBI or police, or allow it to be used to determine your eligibility for government benefits,” according to Census Bureau materials.

The Census Bureau has already sent out several mailings. Despite the huge warning advising people that they are legally required to respond, some have told Berkeleyside they thought the mailings were spam.

These materials include a “census ID” number that you can use when you fill out your form online to make it easier for the government to track response rates. But it’s no problem if you can’t find it. The important thing is to fill out the form, the sooner the better.

People who haven’t filled out the online form by next week are scheduled to get a reminder letter and paper questionnaire on April 8 or during the week that follows. Then there will be another reminder postcard from April 20-27. After that, there will be an in-person visit. Less than 1% of the nation, largely those who live in remote areas, will be counted in person.

Forms must be filled out by Aug. 14.

Apportionment counts are set to go to the president by Dec. 31, with redistricting counts sent to states by March 31, 2021. But, again, it’s not clear how the COVID-19 pandemic might affect this schedule.

In 2010, fairly large portions of Berkeley were classified as “hard to count” areas, meaning their census response rates were low.

Parts of Berkeley have been labeled “hard to count.” Source: Census Bureau

Downtown and the neighborhood south of campus were the toughest to count, while north of campus and much of West Berkeley also struggled. According to the census, multi-unit structures, renter-occupied units and non-family households were some of the issues that made it difficult to get an accurate count in Berkeley. Crowded units, “moved recently” and “below 150 percent of poverty level” were also listed as factors.

Casey Farmer, executive director of the Alameda County Complete Count Committee, told Berkeleyside recently that, by one estimate, each person who is counted brings in about $10,000 to their local jurisdiction over 10 years. Farmer has been leading the charge since last year to engage a wide range of local stakeholders — officials, nonprofits and all sorts of community organizations that work with different populations — in Alameda County census efforts.

Funding for affordable housing and programs like Head Start depends on census data, she said, as do social scientists who rely on accurate demographics data for their work.

“It’s a pillar of democracy,” Farmer said. “If we’re not counted, we lose our fair share of the resources and the political power that our community needs to thrive.”

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...