The 2020 Census: What to expect and when

WINSTON/MARION - It is quite possible you have seen those cards and flyers on counters and displays asking for census workers. The United States Census Bureau has been getting ready for the upcoming 2020 Census for several months now, and they need workers to help in all local areas. But first, what is a census? Genealogists know about the population schedule, but does the general public know about all the others?
The fact is, census information goes well beyond genealogy and helps to provide needed data to the U.S. government to appropriate money and representatives accordingly and helps with marketing and research.
A new census is taken every 10 years and has since the time of President George Washington. The first one was taken in 1790. All census records from 1790 through 1940 are currently available to the public, except for the majority of 1890, which was mostly destroyed by a fire.
Originally, the information taken from the public to make the census was only the name of the head of household and a number of how many male and female slaves and freedmen lived in the household. These lists were published as soon as possible. Nowadays however, much of the information taken is private, and a law was passed in 1978 allowing only the person who gave the information, or the legal representative, to access it. The law states the census stays private for 72 years and to be released afterwards. The 1940 census was released April 2, 2012, and the 1950 census will be released in April 2022.
Each census asked different questions but most always included name, relationship to head of household, age (sometimes the month and year of birth), place of birth, place of birth of parents, for and after the 1850 census. This information is listed on the population schedule. While great information for genealogists, there are other schedules taken as well, including agriculture, manufacturing and labor and population characteristics.
The process has evolved since those early census records, where clerks had to add by hand on paper.
“The first real breakthrough came when a punchcard tabulating system was developed,” one publication noted. It was first used in 1890, where holes were punched in cards and fed through the machine using electric current to trip a counter. This machine could count 250 items per minute.
Another speeding up processing machine was the first large-scale electronic computer, the UNIVAC I, designed and built for the U.S. Census Bureau and could count 4,000 items per minute. Currently, computers can count up to one million items per minute.
But what about those cards and flyers for the 2020 Census?
Workers are needed in multiple areas to help get the census completed. Kristina Barrett, public affairs specialist with the U.S. Census Bureau, gave a list of these jobs.
“There are a variety of jobs available - recruiting assistants, media specialists, partnership specialists, area census office staff, in-field address canvassing staff, census taker and those who perform non-response follow-up operations.”
Barrett also explained the bureau is not looking at the census on a countywide level but rather at a state level of different areas.
“There are three area census office locations scheduled for Alabama: Birmingham, Huntsville and Mobile. There isn't a standard number of workers required for each location. Staffing depends on population, geography and low response/hard to count score. We are not looking at ACOs from a county population viewpoint, but rather the area covered by the ACO and the population within that ACO coverage area.”
The 2020 Census will be different from all other censuses in the past. Beginning March 12, 2020, 80 percent of the United States public will begin receiving cards in the mail instructing them to go online to fill out the survey to be used for the census. The other 20 percent will be deemed in internet-deficient areas and will be mailed a paper questionnaire. Overall, 95 percent of addresses will receive either the card or paper form. The other five percent is categorized as special circumstances and census takers will visit these places.
A reminder letter will be sent between March 16, and March 24, 2020, if the bureau has not received a response.
Several letters and postcards will continue to be sent through the mail until April 27. Afterwards, a census taker will visit in person.
“Census takers and those who perform no response follow ups make every attempt to get omitted info before operations conclude,” Barrett said. “In the event responses are not received, we use third-party data to complete the questionnaire. Performing non-response follow-ups is the most costly operation of the entire census.”
“It doesn’t matter which initial invitation you get or how you get it—we will follow up in person with all households that don’t respond,” states an information flyer. It is important to get information sent to the bureau as quickly as possible so the government can begin its sampling and counting.
The mission for the U.S. Census Bureau is
“to serve as the nation’s leading provider of quality data about its people and economy.”
Overall general population characteristics are released soon after the census has been completed and is available online.
For more information on working with the federal government for the 2020 Census, general census information or concerns, visit or call 800-923-8282. To apply for a job, go to or call 855-562-2020.

See complete story in the Northwest Alabamian.
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