Answer census, bring money to your community

OKEECHOBEE — Since Aug. 2, 1790, the United States has been completing a census every 10 years to help with governmental planning. When the time for the census rolls around, it is met with mixed reactions ranging from:“Oh great! Here come those nosy government workers wanting to know my business again” to “I’ll get to this later, if I get around to it” to “I better do this right away before I forget.”

Pedro M. Guilarte, from the U.S. Census Bureau, visited the Okeechobee County Library last week to speak to community leaders about the census and why it is important for every community to participate. The census is in the Constitution, he said. Our Founding Fathers put in the Constitution that we take a census every 10 years, so every year that ends with a zero, we make a count of our population. Besides counting the people, he said, the real purpose of a census is to see where we are as a country, as a group, as a population.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News
There are 330 federal programs for which Washington allocates money, and the money is sent back to our communities based on population counts. When people are left out, your community does not get the money for those people.

Where are we weak? What are the issues? “Then politicians can disagree on how to handle them,” he joked. Seriously though, Mr. Guilarte said, an example would be if they see a large group of 3- and 4-year-olds coming up, the public schools would need to address it, because they will need more school capacity. They will need to determine if they will build a new school or add on to an existing school. The census helps them to know in advance that they need to address this need. The same can be said about the need for medical services, he said. All this type of information can be derived from a census, he explained.

In the last 30 years or so, there has been another reason to complete the census, and that is the federal government is sending money back to your community based on the results of the census. “We all know we pay our taxes. We send money to Washington, through payroll deductions or quarterly payments if you are self-employed. We all know how it gets to Washington, but how does it get back? Largely, it is by population count,” said Mr. Guilarte.

There are 330 federal programs for which Washington allocates money, and the money is sent back to our communities based on population counts, ” he said. He went on to explain, when people are left out, your community does not get the money for those people. That money goes to some other community instead. Washington puts a certain amount of money in the pot for those 330 programs, and if we don’t count the people, someone else will, he said. Then they will be getting their fair share and some of YOUR fair share, so it is very important that we count everyone. Everyone counts. It does not matter if they are documented or not.

Another reason for the census is political apportionment. Political districts are drawn based on population counts. Back in 2010, Florida gained two congressional seats at the expense of other states that lost population. “We believe we will gain one, maybe two seats in 2020,” he said. “But, if we don’t count the people, we may miss it.”

There are usually two reasons the census doesn’t get filled out, he explained. One is that people set it aside to do later and then forget about it. The best way to combat that is to just do it right away and you won’t have to worry about remembering to do it later.

The second reason is more complicated because it is fear — fear of providing information about themselves to the government. Often, immigrants are in this group, he said, but there are others in this group as well. This group fears the government will use this information against them. “The census is totally, totally confidential. Whatever information anyone provides the census bureau stays with the census bureau. They don’t share with any other government agency. Shortly after 911, Homeland Security came to the census bureau and wanted to access the information to find possible terrorists, and the census bureau said, ‘We can’t.’ They had to get the information somewhere else,” he said. Any information supplied to the census bureau stays totally confidential for 72 years, and after that, it is released to the public. There is absolutely no need to fear the information will be used to have someone deported.

In 2020, the census will be done primarily online, he said. Around March 15, every address in the United States will receive a card in the mail. It will be an invitation to go online and fill out the census form. The invitation will not be addressed to a specific person but to a specific address. It is supposed to be filled out for all the people living at that address on April 1, 2020. The card will have a code on it which is keyed to the address, and you will use it when you fill in the form online.

It’s important to include everyone living in your home. If two families live in the same home, include every member of both families. If you rent a room out, include that person as well. The census bureau is not seeking to get anyone in trouble for renting out rooms or having too many people in one house. They just want an accurate count. They won’t be sharing your information with any other agencies who might care if you are renting out a room. Please include every single person in the house. If you are taking care of Grandma in your home, don’t forget to include her, too.

If you don’t fill out your form online, then about 10 days later, you will get a second card in the mail reminding you to go online. If you ignore that one, they will send someone to your home about 20 days later to try to get the information. If you don’t open the door or you are not home, you won’t be counted. You can fill it out online from any computer, including the library, he said. You can even use your phone, but a computer would probably be easier.

This year, each community will get an average of $1,600 per person who fills out the census. It comes via the 330 programs he talked about earlier. The single largest program is Medicaid.

He said he has talked to wealthy people who said they did not think it affected them because they are not on Medicaid, but it does affect them, he said, because if they got to the hospital when they are sick, if that hospital is not getting the proper amount of money, they are not going to have the latest equipment.

“If you see 10 people out there who didn’t get counted, that is $16,000 that did not come to our community, to our hospital, to our schools, to our roads, to our nonprofits, to everyone,” he said.

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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