With a new decade comes one of the oldest American customs still in existence: The decennial census.
The United States Census has taken place every 10th year since it was inaugurated Aug. 2, 1790, under then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson; there have been 22 federal censuses since then.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed an executive order in April 2019 establishing the Arizona Complete Count Committee and since then has appointed 23 Arizonans from across the state to lead Arizona’s census effort.
According to Alec Thomson, the committee’s executive director, this effort is vitally important to Arizona’s economic, political and infrastructural future.
“We have really, over the last few months, been building a really comprehensive and robust statewide campaign that is reaching out to traditionally undercounted communities,” Thomson said. “[There is] a large focus on reaching rural Arizonans and to ensure that they’re included in the 2020 Census.”
But what makes the U.S. Census so consequential?
“Data from the census is used for everything from planning for transportation infrastructure to medical services,” Thomson said.
Specifically, information about the American populace determines how big a piece of the $675 billion federal pie is distributed to each state.
“We get a share of that based on our census counts,” Thomson said. “Just a 1 percent undercount of Arizonans in the census could lead to a loss of about $620 million over the next decade for Arizona, and that’s a really conservative estimate. It clearly matters, from a funding perspective.”
The decennial census also has an impact on Arizona’s political representation in Washington as well as locally, he said.
“We potentially could receive a 10th congressional seat based on our population increases that result from the 2020 Census,” Thomson said.
He said he thinks Arizonans can be optimistic the state will gain at least one new congressional seat; two seats are possible but less likely.
“The other factor is that Census data is used to draw Arizona’s political lines, from both the state level and local and county levels as well,” Thomson said.
For the past 23 federal decennial censuses, surveys have been conducted on paper and mailed with the U.S. Postal Service. But this year is unique.
“For the first time ever, you will be able to respond by phone, online and through the traditional method by mail — a paper form,” Thomson said. “Beginning March 12, every Arizonan should receive an invitation to respond to the Census.”
Arizonans will be sent an invitation code, which they can use to respond to the U.S. Census online or over the phone. If they don’t respond, they will eventually receive a paper copy.
On Arizona’s Tribal lands and in certain rural areas — some of which don’t have mail service — some Arizona residents may receive what the Census Bureau calls “update leave,” which is when a Census representative delivers a physical copy of the survey to a citizen’s home.
And how does the Census Bureau determine where to send its survey?
Thomson said the system is “really complex,” but essentially the Census Bureau performs address canvassing using data from county assessors’ offices, satellite maps such as Google Maps and physical visits to communities to ensure the bureau has the most up-to-date information about where people live.
“That means new apartments that are popping up throughout downtown Phoenix; that means a city like El Mirage that has a new housing development in it; that all of those houses which have popped up in the last 10 years — which is a substantial amount, especially in a place like Arizona — that those addresses are on record with the U.S. Census Bureau to make sure that they are getting a Census invitation,” he said.
Thomson said it is also important to note that previous censuses provide an incredible amount of data on where undercounted areas might be. “Census tracts” are defined by local communities, where municipalities can predict how likely their own communities are to respond to the census.
There is another important use for census data: Business.
“The Census matters to Arizona business,” Thomson said. “Businesses in Arizona and across the country use this data to make strategic decisions about where to locate their businesses, where to open new stores, where to open a distribution center.”
Those decisions are often based on population and growth, workforce and other data.
So, what is the Arizona Complete Count Committee doing to ensure Arizonans respond to the 2020 Census?
“This campaign is built on a very robust community effort that’s really being led by a diverse group of Arizonans that includes members of Arizona’s business community, and our priority is to make sure that Arizonans know that the Census is safe, easy and important, and that they’re hearing that message from people that they trust,” Thomson said.
That person might be a pastor, a chamber of commerce president or an employer, but the only objective is awareness followed by participation.
“We just want to make sure that every Arizonan knows the importance of the Census, and that when they respond, that information is protected,” Thomson said.