In mid-March, households across America received a mailing from the U.S. Census Bureau with detailed information about how to respond to the census. As of April 1, 38.4% of U.S. citizens had completed the questionnaire. In Maine, 31% had filled it out.

In this time of crisis and uncertainty, the census almost feels irrelevant to our daily lives, but it is hugely important to states and to communities, especially those in rural areas. A major purpose of the census, for example, is to allocate seats in Congress to states based on population size. Because of our steady loss of population over the past several years, Maine has hovered dangerously close to losing one of its congressional districts. At least for this census cycle, Maine is expected to make it through with both districts intact.

Perhaps even more important to communities and villages scattered around our rural state is the distribution of hundreds of millions of federal funds that use formulas based on population and demographics. Several programs have special meaning for rural areas, such as water and waste disposal systems, Section 8 housing, Medicaid, highway planning, food stamps, special education, heating assistance, and services for the elderly. The two biggest line items in our small-town budgets — education and roads — would be even bigger if federal funds did not supplement state and local revenues.

Even before the corona virus paralyzed American life, concerns were raised about the many challenges facing the 2020 census. Budget shortfalls and cutbacks hampered early ramp-up efforts for the census curtailing the face-to-face follow-up that prior census efforts relied upon. Because rural areas are known for lower participation rates, the face-to-face field operations to follow-up on non-responses have been essential in getting accurate counts. In addition, a proposed question on citizenship, which was rejected last summer, threatened to compromise response rates especially among immigrants, wary of how their participation might affect them.

And we can now add complications from the COVID-19 pandemic to the list. The initial deadline for the census, July 31, has been pushed back to mid-August. Follow-up field operations are suspended until at least April 15. The new feature in the 2020 census — online responses — will be heavily relied upon in the coming weeks. This too may prove problematic for rural responders where access to and use of the internet is often lower. And even when rural residents have internet access, it is often slower and unreliable.

An army of census workers had been expected to fan out across the U.S. from April to July. That has obviously come to a standstill, which is again not good news for rural communities. Nevertheless, recruitment of census workers continues. At last check, Maine had reached 63% of the recruitment goal, although most counties still need a lot of workers. When the time is right (and safe) these census takers will again hit the road in our cities and towns.

Counting every person, including infants and toddlers, in the United States every 10 years is a challenge. But it is critical. It provides a snapshot of our nation — who we are, where we live, and so much more. And importantly, participating in the census is required by law. It is our responsibility as citizens of the United States.

Over the next decade, lawmakers, business owners, and many others will use 2020 census data to make critical decisions about new schools, clinics, and roads, and more services for families, older adults, and children. Businesses will use the data to help guide decisions on where to locate, how many customers will be served, and what wages will be competitive to hire workers.

So, as you stay at home to preserve your and your community’s health, fill out that census form. Most Maine households will receive it in the mail. In more rural areas, some households will get it delivered to the home after it is safe to do so without risk of spreading COVID-19.

But you don’t have to wait for your invitation to respond. For the first time, the census can be answered online (www.2020census.gov) or by telephone 1-844-330-2020 (for English; other languages are available). If you don’t have good internet access, you can respond at your local library once it is reopened or at other town-designated sites.

And if you want to do more to assure that your community is counted, consider applying for a census job. It pays well ($20/hour and $.575 a mile for travel). Who doesn’t need more money right now with so many layoffs?

Help your community by responding now to make sure you and your household members are counted. The benefits to the state, and to you, will help make Maine an even better place to live.

Lisa Miller, of Somerville, is a former legislator who served on the Health and Human Services and Appropriations and Financial Affairs committees. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications.


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