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Prioritize importance of census

The U.S. Census Bureau acknowledged its numerous serious challenges last week prior to launching the 2020 decennial head count on Thursday, when 112 million households were scheduled to begin receiving a letter asking them to respond online.

As reported in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, bureau officials were worrying that disinformation spread over social media could taint the count.

Meanwhile, government watchdogs and lawmakers were worrying that new technology underpinning the online count is not ready. The bureau switched to a backup system last month to manage households’ online responses — a system not tested extensively.

Of major significance beyond those concerns is fear that Americans’ declining trust in government and increasing privacy worries will discourage participation. A question of great relevance then is whether the 2020 Census will end up a debacle rather than the positive measuring stick that it is intended to be.

For the benefit of people who might not understand the importance of the census, here are two facts to ponder:

— The numbers that the census generates determine which states gain — and which states lose — congressional seats and electoral votes after this year’s general election. Past censuses resulted in the erosion of Pennsylvania’s representation and, therefore, power in the U.S House of Representatives, and there could be a further erosion after this year, based on the count getting underway.

— The numbers that the census generates play a big part in determining how the federal government distributes at least $675 billion a year in funding to the states. When Pennsylvania’s census numbers decrease, the state’s funding from Washington decreases also, and that puts pressure on Harrisburg’s ability to meet the commonwealth’s needs.

Census participation is as important as residents’ responsibility to vote every Election Day. Don’t hurt your state by ignoring the census.

With all of the concerns — the big and smaller ones — dogging the census, it is reasonable to be skeptical to a quote in last Tuesday’s Journal article. The Journal quoted Michael Thieme, the bureau’s assistant director for decennial census programs, systems and contracts, who said “we’re as ready as anybody could be.”

Perhaps, but a logical query nonetheless is whether glitches not envisioned will complicate the census further. For example, the COVID-19 crisis — declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization — might impact the head count.

Consider the many thousands of census takers who will be dispatched to households from which there isn’t an initial response. The bureau also reportedly plans to deploy about 14,000 census takers to places such as campgrounds, hotels, motels and circuses and carnivals in an effort to “catch up” with people who lack permanent addresses.

Regarding households that do not respond initially, the bureau’s plan is to dispatch enumerators, beginning later this spring. Those census takers will input data into an app on a census-issued iPhone.

The initial letters being sent out asking people to respond online include an individual code to use when entering information at my2020census.gov. A total of 31 million households that the bureau deems unlikely to respond online will be receiving a paper questionnaire by mail.

Still, everyone will have the option to respond online, and there is a telephone option as well. Do not ignore the census.

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