Critical 2020 Census Count Underway



By Carrie Davis, director of the Joyce Foundation’s democracy program.

The all-important, once-a-decade task of counting everyone in the nation has begun, with new methods in place that make it easy to complete remotely and safely from home.

The 2020 census is a critical tool in keeping our democracy and economy functioning correctly. For the first time, people have a choice in how to fill out the census questionnaire -- either online or over the phone, in addition to more traditional mailed forms. A website with the form to fill out went live on March 12.

The Census Bureau and its local government and nonprofit partners are adjusting outreach plans because of coronavirus concerns, to assure an accurate count while protecting the public’s health and safety. Organizers are hoping the nationwide slowdown and working-from-home arrangements give more people a chance to participate during March and early April.

The Joyce Foundation is supporting statewide census outreach efforts across the Great Lakes region, as well as the national Census Counts partnership. Having an accurate census count relates directly to the foundation’s promotion of fair representation and voting rights.

Here’s what you need to know to ensure your family, friends, neighbors, and community don’t get missed:

1. What is the census?

A population count of everyone living in the U.S. It has been conducted every ten years since 1790 in the year ending in zero (2000, 2010, 2020…).

2. Why is the census important?

Population data from the census is used to determine how to distribute $1.5 trillion dollars in federal funding for schools, roads and bridges, and more. State and local governments use census data to decide where to open new police or fire stations, libraries, schools, or community centers. Businesses use census population figures to decide where to open, close or expand stores.

Census data also helps government officials redraw the boundaries of congressional, legislative and city council districts every 10 years, impacting who are political leaders will be. Those districts are required to have roughly the same population. The data also is used to enforce voting rights and civil rights laws. Chicago and other urban areas historically have suffered from undercounts, particularly among people of color and neighborhoods with high-poverty and immigrant populations. It’s estimated that 32 percent of Cook County consists of hard-to-count neighborhoods that require more direct outreach.

3. What is the timeline for the 2020 census?

The counting began January 21 in remote parts of Alaska and on March 12 everywhere else.

The Census Bureau will send out letters between March 12 and 20 inviting households to complete the census, and reminders will be sent throughout March and April.


4. Is there a deadline to fill out the census?

Households are strongly encouraged to complete their census forms in March or April. The Census Bureau plans to send workers door-to-door May through July to follow up with any homes that have not yet responded. The census concludes at the end of July.

5. How do I fill out the census?

There are three ways to respond – online, by phone, or by mail – your choice.

  • Online: Go to, which is a secure website designed to keep your answers confidential.
  • By phone: You can complete your census by calling the Census Bureau using one of the toll-free numbers listed below. Telephone assistance is available in 13 language, seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. EDT.
  • By mail: The first mailing to most households will include an invitation to fill out the census online, but some households in areas less likely to respond online will receive a paper questionnaire. You cannot request a paper census form. However, all households that have not responded will eventually receive a reminder mailing with a paper questionnaire (scheduled for April 8-16). The paper questionnaire includes a prepaid postage envelope to return it by mail.

6. Who should fill out the census?

Every household should fill out a census form, one per household, listing everyone who lives at that address as of April 1, 2020.

7. What does the census ask? How long does it take to fill out?
The census asks how many people live in the home and basic information about each person – name, date of birth, sex, and race. You can view the full list of census questions here. The census does NOT ask for Social Security numbers, bank account or credit card numbers, citizenship or immigration status, or political affiliation.
It should only take about ten minutes for most households to complete the census.
8. Is the census available in languages other than English?

Yes. The census form is available in English plus 12 additional languages (see the list above). The Census Bureau also offers informational in-language guides on how to complete the census in 59 languages – including American Sign Language, braille, and large print English.
Here is an easy to share handout on language support.
9. Is the census confidential?

Yes. By law, individual responses to the census are confidential and cannot be shared. All Census Bureau employees, including those who go door-to-door, must keep census answers private or face serious penalties. Read more here.

10. What if I need help or have questions?
Contact the Census Bureau using the toll-free numbers above or visit

Or contact the nonprofit, nonpartisan Census Counts coalition at or by calling one of these toll-free census hotlines.

11. Where can I find information about census activities in my state?

Here are the state census partnerships in the Great Lakes region:

Census Counts has a variety of resources available for national, state, and community partners.

The U.S. Census Bureau has a list of partners and partner resources here.

If you are looking for the latest Census updates, please visit the United States Census Bureau.

About The Joyce Foundation

Joyce is a nonpartisan, private foundation that invests in evidence-informed public policies and strategies to advance racial equity and economic mobility for the next generation in the Great Lakes region.

Related Content

Policy Watch

Fairness in redistricting

Michigan residents have a chance to help craft fairer, more equitable legislative districts, and a coalition of nonprofit organizations is banding together to help community groups take advantage of the opportunity.

Grantee Spotlight

COVID-19 Stories: Nailing the Ballot Question

Is 2020 the year of mail-in election ballots? In Ohio, they now sprout from trees.

Grantee Spotlight

COVID-19 Stories: Upping the Census Count

Text messages and grocery store receipts? That was not part of the expansive outreach campaign Joan Gustafson and her partners envisioned when they set out three years ago to persuade more Michiganders to participate in the national 2020 Census.


Critical 2020 Census Count Underway

Joyce supporting statewide census outreach efforts across the Great Lakes region, as well as the national Census Counts partnership. Having an accurate census count relates directly to the foundation’s promotion of fair representation and voting rights.


Want to be the first state to vote? Better make sure you’re ready

Which state should hold the first presidential primary? One that’s most prepared, argues the Joyce Foundation’s democracy program director, Carrie Davis.


A big day for democracy: Here's a look at the Supreme Court decisions and what's next.

Supreme Court actions reached markedly divergent decisions on two cases: Rucho v. Common Cause and Department of Commerce v. New York. For those of us concerned about the health and inclusivity of our democracy, this is a day of mixed reactions.


Why the Stakes Are High for Cook County with Supreme Court’s 2020 Census Case

Supreme Court heard arguments on whether a question about citizenship will be allowed on the 2020 Census, and early indicators suggest that the question will stand. If so, Cook County must redouble its efforts to ensure we have a full and complete census.


The Joyce Foundation Signs Onto SCOTUS Brief Against Census Citizenship Question

Joyce joined 30 philanthropic organizations in signing onto a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Court to strike down the Citizenship question from the 2020 Census.