Corridor cities gear up to maximize census counts

For first time, residents can respond online or by phone

Balloons decorate an April 1 event for community activists and local government leaders to mark the one-year-out launch of the 2020 Census efforts in Boston, Mass. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
Balloons decorate an April 1 event for community activists and local government leaders to mark the one-year-out launch of the 2020 Census efforts in Boston, Mass. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

With the mission of counting every resident in the country — and with billions of dollars and political representation at stake — the 2020 U.S. Census for the first time will turn to the internet to encourage people to respond.

With notices being mailed to most in the nation only about seven months from now, local cities are focusing on gathering volunteers and spreading the word to maximize participation.

The census, a constitutional requirement to count everyone in the United States every 10 years, is high-stakes for local governments — especially ones like North Liberty and Marion that are growing quickly and eager for new population numbers to unlock more government money.

“It’s really a critical thing for growing communities,” said Marion City Manager Lon Pluckhahn. “Especially on road-use tax, as Marion continues to add miles of road and has to continue to do maintenance on the roads that we have. If we don’t get an accurate count, by the time you get to the end of a decade before the next census, you can really start to run short.”

Across the nation, population numbers affect how more than $675 billion in federal funding for things like schools, housing and transportation are allocated; determine apportionment for seats in the U.S. House; and affect how local voting districts are drawn.

Although the census doesn’t officially begin until April 1, 2020, notices will start going out to some parts of the county as soon as January or February. And this time, the census will provide more options for answering questions — namely, completing an online response form or calling a toll-free phone number.

“While we know we have a lot of people with internet access, I personally can’t imagine trying to fill out a 25-page census long form on my smartphone if that’s the only internet that I have,” Pluckhahn said, adding Marion will explore a joint effort with the public library to help provide computers or take devices and connectivity hot spots to multifamily buildings.


People may still request a paper form, bypassing the online and phone options. In-person response also is an option but reserved for those who don’t initially respond otherwise.

Pluckhahn said the city’s staff is beginning to look into census preparations, including forming a “Complete Count Committee.” The city staff also must update maps so the Census Bureau knows where its new subdivisions are located.

Johnson County efforts are well underway.

The county and the cities of Iowa City, Coralville and North Liberty have joined to create one Complete Count Committee to streamline the messaging.

That committee is meeting monthly but might increase in frequency as the census nears. The group has four subcommittees that focus on topics like the business community and communications.

“A concern that (the business subcommittee wants) to look out for is the ability for census workers to have access to the tenants within these multifamily buildings that may be locked or otherwise secured on a regular basis,” said Ashley Monroe, Iowa City assistant city manager. “So working with the landlords for those properties is really critical.”

Efforts will ramp up for the Johnson County committee toward the beginning of the year, Monroe said. She said members want to make sure residents know the census is coming, and have sample forms and other materials to share.

“We want to make sure that people know how that information will be used or not used. That’s going to be a critical part of our conversation as the census nears,” Monroe said.

North Liberty, also a growing city like Marion, is most concerned with its road-use tax fund and gas tax allocations, said Tracey Mulcahey, assistant city administrator and city clerk.


“It gives us good projection as to where we’ve come and where we’re going so that we can keep planning high-quality infrastructure for our future,” Mulcahey said.

Both North Liberty and Marion have performed special censuses since the last encompassing one in 2010 because they’re both rapidly growing communities.

Marion’s partial special census, which focused on a portion of the community, counted an additional 2,800 people — providing the city about $2.6 million in additional tax revenue until the 2020 census.

North Liberty’s special census found the city’s population to be more than 18,200, marking a 36 percent increase from the 2010 census count. North Liberty officials at the time estimates the higher count would provide $500,000 more each fiscal year for road maintenance and construction.

The small community of Robins in Linn County also conducted a special census, and estimated the 300 extra people it found would translate into about $301,000 in additional road-use tax and local-option sales tax.

For the upcoming census, Cedar Rapids has partnered with Linn County on its Complete Count Committee. The group began work this spring to review past response rates and discuss potential outreach efforts, said Maria Johnson, a city spokeswoman.

Johnson said it’s possible the city will provide mobile workshops so people without computers or internet can respond online.

“The highest participation rate possible in Cedar Rapids, Linn County, and Iowa is vastly important to ensure we have access to federal funds ...,” Johnson said in an email. “The city of Cedar Rapids receives approximately $32 million a year or almost 7 percent of its budget in federal funds. It is important to note that a high participation rate by all Iowans benefits everyone in the State.”


Sam Fettig, a U.S. Census Bureau media specialist for Iowa, said the bureau is focusing largely on hiring right now. There are thousands of positions available in Iowa, particularly for census takers, he said. Hiring for those jobs begins in September.

“Hiring is a big focus for our engagement right now,” Fettig said. “Just like engaging city leaders through the Complete Count Committees, hiring local people is how we will establish those positive connections and relationships to help people learn about the census and get engaged.”

For those interested in applying for census jobs, call 1-855-562-2020 or visit

Your Census Questions Answered

Q: What is the census?

A: A count of every person living in the United States. It’s required by the Constitution and performed every 10 years by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Q: Why is the census performed?

A: The census determines congressional representation as well as federal allocations of more than $675 billion to states and communities.

Q: When will the 2020 census begin?

A: April 1, 2020, is the official date. But many will get a notice earlier. Each housing unit will receive a mailer explaining how to respond to the census.

Q: What’s new in 2020?

A: Census responders will have the option to fill out the form over the internet or by phone. They also can request a traditional paper form.

Q: Can I choose not to respond?

A: Every U.S. resident is required by law to respond to the census.

Q: What types of questions will it ask?

A: Number of people in your household as well as their races, ages and sex, if they’re of hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin, if the home is owned or rented. The census will not ask for Social Security numbers, bank account information or money.

Q: What will happen to my personal information?

A: The Census Bureau is required to protect your information and keep it confidential. The information is combined with that of other households to create statistical data.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

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