An accurate census is “critically important” to growing communities like Marion, but plans to help residents register for the census electronically are being put on hold in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Marion City Manager Lon Pluckhahn said.
While Marion had plans to mobilize volunteers to visit senior centers and help residents fill out the census online, among other community-outreach plans, Pluckhahn said the city will now have to find other ways to encourage residents to participate.
“For us, it is critically important as a growing community,” Pluckhahn said. “People have other priorities right now, and if they’re not given extra grace, we might miss a significant portion of the population.”
The U.S. census is conducted once every 10 years — a required count of every person living in the United States as of April 1. During March, every household should receive a letter from the Census Bureau with information on how to reply. Residents can respond to the questions by phone, mail or online.
The census determines how many representatives Iowa gets in Congress and how much federal funding Iowa receives for housing assistance, road improvements and hospitals, according to a news release from Linn County.
Communities that are undercounted are disadvantaged both economically and politically.
In fiscal 2016, Iowa received about $8.7 billion through 55 federal spending programs guided by data derived from the 2010 census.
“I think the bigger question is going to be whether or not over the next couple weeks as this continues to develop, whether it runs its course or gets worse, the federal government is going to take a look at doing something different with the census timeline,” Pluckhahn said.
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Marion grew 32.2 percent from the 2000 census to the 2010 census, moving the population from 26,294 residents to 34,768.
Today, the city estimates it has more than 40,000 residents.
Doug Boldt, the city administrator in Tiffin, is concerned how the census count will be affected by closed libraries, where people would have been able to complete the census on a publicly available computer.
Tiffin’s 2010 count was 1,947 residents. Boldt expects at least 4,000 Tiffin residents to register for the 2020 census.
“When the libraries reopen, we’re going to have to get the word out there that if you haven’t taken the census yet or if you need help or were planning on going to the library to do that, now is the time,” Boldt said.
Boldt said the results of the census could “do some really positive things for the community,” such as enabling it to increase the size of its public works facility with additional Road Use Tax dollars.
North Liberty, Marion and Robins are among the communities that performed special censuses since the last encompassing one in 2010 because they’re rapidly growing areas.
Marion’s partial special census, which focused on a portion of the city, provided the city with about $2.6 million in additional tax revenue until the 2020 census.
North Liberty’s special census determined that about a half-million dollars more a year would be available for road maintenance and construction.
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Robins estimated the 300 extra people it found in its special census would translate into about $301,000 in additional road-use tax and local-option sales tax.
Last week, the Census Bureau said about 11 million households had completed the census so far this year. It encouraged people who get the packet to respond as soon as possible, but said it was suspending its field operations until April 1.
However, the bureau said that — for now anyway — it still plans to have workers visit those households from which it had not received a response starting May 1.
The bureau also said that university towns like Iowa City will still be able to count college students as residents despite ramping down for the rest of the semester.
College students will be counted at the residence they sleep at most of the time, according to the Census Bureau’s Official Residence Criteria for the 2020 Census. This applies even if they are staying at their parent’s or guardian’s home on census day because of COVID-19 related college campus closures.
Colleges and universities are to provide the Census Bureau with the total number of students living on campus.
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