2020 Census - What You Need to Know

What the 2020 Census means for Pennsylvania and CHS

The 2020 Census officially kicked off last month on April 1, 2020, and so far the road here has been bumpy, so we’ve broken this all down for you to help you feel more comfortable participating, more knowledgeable in knowing what the census is used for, and better understand why the census is so important for our lives during the next 10 years.

First, here are helpful websites to answer any questions you may have concerning the 2020 Census (especially updates related to COVID-19) and the implact the census will have on Pennsylvania:





The purpose of the census is to gather basic demographic information about the people living in the United States so the government can, based on the counted population, appropriately disburse federal funding to states for areas like infrastructure, social services, community planning, education, healthcare programs, and political representation. It’s essentially a head count. The first census took place in 1790, and it has taken place every 10 years since. Pennsylvania receives the fifth largest amount of funding, which equaled almost $27 billion in 2010.


You should have already received an invitation to participate in the 2020 Census online or perhaps received a paper copy of the form. The census will never ask for individual information such as social security number, bank or credit card information, money or donations, or anything on behalf of a political party. It’s basically looking for how many people live in your household and their basic demographic information such as race and age.

Just to note, the form will still be counted if it is not 100 percent complete. For example, if you are transgender and do not feel comfortable or know how to respond to the question asking you to identify your sex—either male or female—you can leave the question blank and the form will still be counted. While we are not telling anyone to purposely turn in an incomplete form, as questions are designed for specific funding allocations (for example, asking to determine sex is used for federal funding for education under the Higher Education Act of 1965 and to enforce rules against gender-based discrimination), if it’s a matter of skipping that question in order to complete the rest of the form to turn in, please by all means skip the question.


For Pennsylvania, we’re looking at $27 billion in federal spending. That’s about $2,000 per person, which equates to $20,000 over the next 10 years. Unfortunately, money does not follow need; it follows numbers. We can shout to the rooftops how we need funding for programs and updated roads, but if the numbers do not reflect a high need for the population the census collected from, then the federal spending will not be allocated. In 2010’s census, it’s estimated that 18.2% of Pennsylvanians did not respond to the census. Since, we’ve experienced a population growth of 3.5% since the 2010 census, it’s estimated that Pennsylvania will see an undercount of about 2.3 million people. That’s a lot of lost dollars.

Participation also impacts an organization, city, and county’s ability to plan and organize projects. Because many local government base a city’s priorities off population growth (such as infrastructure, road mapping, housing) then it’s vital that it knows how many people need certain services. If the population is predicted to increase over the next 10 years by X percentage, then local governments need to plan accordingly to plan new roads, avoid housing shortages, and provide sufficient access to necessary resources that meet the demands of the population. It’s also vital information that gives businesses a look into the changing needs of their local population.


Hard-to-count populations include alternative or overcrowded housing units, renters who move around often, single-parent headed households, children under 5 years old, non-English speakers, immigrants + refugees, persons experiencing homelessness, and racial + ethnic minorities.

Language barriers will only add to the difficulty in reaching all persons. The United States is a melting pot of over 350 languages. Pennsylvania is home to 135 languages, with the top 10 being English, Spanish, Italian, German, French, Pennsylvania Dutch, Chinese, Russian, Polish, and Korean. The 2020 Census will be available in 13 languages, with 52 others available upon request. You can also download guides in languages ranging from Arabic to Urdo.

Technology will also be a barrier. Due to under-funding, the 2020 Census will rely on technology more so than any previous census. This is fine if you have reliable internet access at home, know where to access internet access, or understand how to use computers. How does this affect Allegheny County? Over 13% of the population lives in poverty (about 156,000 people), which only increases the risk of insufficient technological resources and literacy needed to complete the census form online. It is expected that 95% of households will receive a census invite by mail, and depending on your area’s likelihood to respond online, may or may not include a paper form to fill out. Every household that doesn’t respond will receive reminders and will eventually receive a paper questionnaire. What’s important is that it doesn’t matter which initial invitation you get or how you get it—the Census Bureau will follow up in person with all households that don’t respond. Which is all fine, unless you are a part of the hard-to-count population that is less likely to respond to a stranger in government uniform at your door due to fear or distrust.


Anyone living in your household on or before April 1, 2020. This includes any born children (pregnant women should not count their fetuses), siblings, an aunt or grandparent, or maybe a cousin who recently got evicted and is currently staying with you until they get enough money saved for first month’s rent on an apartment. The census will ask you to identify if each person living with you lives there temporarily or permanently. Such information is important in assessing an accurate portrayal of our communities and the amount of people living there at any given time, as some people travel often for work, are stationed at a military base, studying away at college, or living equally at a secondary residence (such as shared child support).  


Like many social services and nonprofits who rely on government funding to support their programming, an undercount could have negative consequences on the amount of people we impact in Allegheny County from 2020-2030. A majority of our funding for housing and residential assistance programs, shelters, and youth programming comes from grants offered at both the state and federal levels. These grants are directly tied to funding allocated by the census. This includes funding for both services and salaries. So without proper funding for the needs of Allegheny County, not only will CHS programming be stretched thin, but so will our staff.

But it’s more than just that. An undercount that excludes people who rely on social services to survive wouldn’t just be weakened throughout this census. A lack of resources for an entire decade will impact their overall longevity and health for the next decades to come, as well as impact the health and prospects of their children. It all trickles down through generations. By the time the next census comes along in 2030, children will have been born to expand family sizes and others will enter phases of their lives that dictate the need for programs that may not have been relevant before. In order to advance social equity, programming cannot backtrack. The damage done because of that takes more time and money to fix than it does to fund a steady movement forward.  


Responding to the 2020 Census is about being counted. Funding depends on this. If you utilize social services, even if it’s using public transportation, responding to the 2020 Census is necessary to make sure you are able to continue benefiting from those services. The questions are simple, and it should take an average of 10 minutes to respond. I responded already, and it took me less than that. Although it’s hard to imagine what you will need in the next 10 years, take a few minutes and think about it. Will you utilize public parks? What about school lunch programs? A bridge to get to work? If you will utilize services that includes infrastructure, public transportation, local businesses, or education, then respond to the census. If not for you, then for your neighbor. Due to COVID-19, the deadline has been extended to October.


Stay safe out there,

Sarah Nesbella

Development Specialist


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