Nine simple questions will determine millions of dollars in federal funding to address things like schools, healthcare, hunger and emergency services in Walker County over the next decade.
Beginning today, March 12th, residents will be invited to participate in the 2020 Census. The constitutionally mandated head count of every person living in the United States happens every ten years and has been occurring since 1790.
During the last Census in 2010, 76% of Walker County residents participated in the self reporting phase. The low participation rate potentially led to an undercount, costing our community millions of dollars in funds, which are distributed locally through 316 federal programs.
Every person counted in Walker County represents about $2,300 in federal funds for things like school breakfast and lunch programs, student loans, housing and energy assistance, Medicaid, highway planning and construction, transit grants and supplemental nutrition programs like WIC and SNAP.
The impact of an undercount can last a decade, as population estimates and projections are based on Census counts. Between 2010 and 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates the population of Walker County grew by only 654 people, from 68,756 to 69,410. The population estimate doesn’t correspond with many base level statistics. For instance, 848 new single family homes were constructed in the unincorporated area of Walker County alone during that same time period.
An undercount also impacts economic development and representation. Census numbers are used by businesses to decide where to build stores, offices and factories, which create jobs. Real estate developers use the data to determine where to build new homes. The results are also used to reapportion the House of Representatives and redraw congressional and state legislative districts to reflect changes in population.
For the 2020 Census, Walker County formed a local Complete Count Committee to raise awareness about the importance of the Census and provide motivation for everyone to help shape the future through a strong population count. The group recently launched a public school PSA contest and will be rolling out messaging on utility bills, along with “Faces of Walker County” posters soon.
Census Pledge Week in Walker County takes place March 23rd through 29th. Several community events tied to the Census for that time period will be revealed next week. Residents will also be encouraged to update their social media profile picture with a special frame stating “Make Walker Count” and inspire others to be counted to help their family, friends and neighbors.
The 2020 Census kickoff for Walker County actually takes place on Thursday, March 19th, which is two weeks in advance of the official national Census Day. The kickoff will take place at the Rossville Public Library and will promote the availability of publicly accessible Census stations at libraries in Rossville, Chickamauga and LaFayette.
The early push coincides with the first two rounds of Census mailings. For the first time, many residents will receive an invitation letter or postcard, instead of the traditional form, with a code to participate in the Census online. Once you fill it out, you won’t be contacted again.
Residents who live in northern Walker County and some areas around LaFayette will still receive the questionnaire. Along with the option of filling it out and mailing it back, instructions on how to be counted online or by phone will be included. Once you’ve been counted, the mailings stop and you won’t receive a visit from a Census Enumerator.
The head of each household should fill out the Census for every person in their home at the time of the count. For example, if you have a relative or friend who is temporarily living with you, they should be counted as part of your household. In shared custody situations, a child should be counted where they sleep on April 1st.
All Census responses are kept confidential for 72 years. There are no exceptions. U.S. law strictly prohibits the Census Bureau from sharing personal information with anyone – including law enforcement, courts or any other government agency. All Census Bureau staff also take a lifetime oath to protect your personal information. Violating that oath results in a penalty of up to five years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine. After 72 years, the records are released to the public by the National Archives and Records Administration for genealogy research.
There will be a lot of other activities vying for your attention this spring. None of them will have as much impact on your community and take less of your time than the 2020 Census. Remember, your response helps guide the future of Walker County. Make Walker count and finish the 2020 Census this spring.