The 2020 Census begins Thursday and here’s what you need to know

Federal funding and seats in Congress — a lot is at stake in Illinois when it comes to the 2020 Census.

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On Thursday, invitation letters sent by the Census Bureau will begin arriving in mailboxes that will contain a Census ID number and explain the three options to fill out a census questionnaire: by phone, by mail or online.

Sun-Times Media

The 2020 Census will kick off Thursday when invitation letters begin arriving at homes in Illinois and around the country. Here’s a primer on the Census and what’s riding on it for the people of Illinois [Quick hint: a lot].

What is it?

Every 10 years, the federal government conducts a constitutionally mandated census that seeks to count everyone who lives in the United States, regardless of immigration or citizenship status. 

Is the census questionnaire a pain to fill out?

No. Filling one out takes about 10 minutes.

What is the census timeline?

On Thursday, invitation letters sent by the Census Bureau will begin arriving in mailboxes that will contain a Census ID number and explain the three options to fill out a census questionnaire: by phone, by mail or online. 

Click here for a sample invitation letter.

Click here for a sample questionnaire.

Click here for an instructional video on completing a questionnaire.

If there’s been no response online at or by phone, a paper questionnaire will be sent via snail mail that should arrive in mailboxes between April 8 and April 16. An envelope will be enclosed to mail back a completed paper questionnaire. 

If there’s still been no response, the Census Bureau will send out interviewers between May 13 and July 31 to knock on the doors of people who haven’t responded in order collect answers in person.

July 31 is the last day someone can fill out a questionnaire.

Ways to help verify a letter is actually from the Census Bureau and not a scammer

Look for “U.S. Census Bureau” in the return address or “U.S. Department of Commerce” which is the Census Bureau’s parent agency.

Also look for Jeffersonville, Indiana in the return address. The Census Bureau has a mail processing center located there.

Also, the enclosed envelope to mail back a completed paper questionnaire would be addressed to Jeffersonville, Indiana, or Phoenix, Arizona.

What will be asked in the questionnaire?

Census questionnaires will ask people to confirm their address, provide their name and phone number and list the names of people who stay at the address. Race and gender will also be asked. Questionnaires also ask whether the home is owned or rented and who owns or rents the home, among other questions.

Is this information confidential?

The information is confidential, protected under federal law and cannot be used against you in any way.

The law states that the Census Bureau cannot release any identifiable information about individuals, households, or businesses, even to law enforcement agencies.

The law states that the information collected may only be used for statistical purposes and no other purpose.

To support historical research, Title 44 of the U.S. Code allows the National Archives and Records Administration to release census records only after 72 years.

All Census Bureau staff take a lifetime oath to protect your personal information, and any violation comes with a penalty of up to $250,000 and/or up to five years in prison.

What’s at stake for Illinois?

How nearly $700 billion of dollars in federal funding is doled out to individual states is at stake. More people equals more money. Also on the line are the number of seats a state has in the House of Representatives. Experts have warned that Illinois, which has declined in population in recent years, could lose one or two congressional seats as a result of the census.

Why has so much emphasis been put on ensuring minority groups from low income neighborhoods participate?

There are an estimated 1.3 million people in Chicago who Census Bureau officials categorize as “hard-to-count” due to concern they will rebuff knocks on their door and therefore won’t be tallied. The people are concentrated in low-income communities like Austin, Humboldt Park, South Shore, Chicago Lawn, Little Village, North Lawndale and West Englewood.

There is no one reason why it’s difficult to get an accurate count, but language barriers and a distrust of the federal government rank high on the list.

The participation of these Illinois residents could tip the scales when it comes to the state’s eligibility for federal funds. A miscount could spell disaster in already under-resourced cities and towns throughout Illinois, advocates say.

To increase participation among these residents, Gov. J.B. Pritzker created a special office dedicated to outreach and funded the effort with $29 million.

Ensuring the participation of non-English speakers

Census invitations will include information in 12 non-English languages, inviting people to respond online or by phone in their language. Video narration in 59 different languages will be available online to help people fill out online questionnaires. And printable guide sheets in 59 different languages that walk people through the process of filling out a paper questionnaire are also available online.

Additionally, beginning March 12, live humans will man phones to record census information and help with related issues in the following languages: English (844-330-2020), Spanish (844-468-2020), Mandarin (844-391-2020), Cantonese (844-398-2020), Vietnamese (844-461-2020), Korean (844-392-2020), Russian (844-417-2020), Arabic (844-416-2020), Tagalog (844-478-2020), Polish (844-479-2020), French (844-494-2020), Haitian Creole (844-477-2020), Portuguese (844-474-2020) and Japanese (844-460-2020).

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