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March/April 2020


​​​Stand Up and Be Counted

Data gathered in the 2020 census will drive decision-making, political representation, and economic development across the U.S. It'll shape your community's future too.​

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​By Kiara Candelaria
​©2020​ Community Associations Institute​​​​​​​


RESIDENTS AT PECCOLE RANCH Community Master Association in Las Vegas have no shortage of amenities to enjoy across 640 acres, such as tennis courts, a disc golf course, a bocce ball court, a playground, and miles of tree-lined walking trails. Seasonal events and myriad activities and programs also keep the more than 7,000 residents entertained.

How does this large-scale community determine the best way to draw in new residents and engage current ones? By looking at demographic data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau in its decennial census, says Jan Porter, general manager at Peccole Ranch.

“For us, (the census data) is a gold mine to know how to change our community for the benefit of our residents" and increase property values, says Porter, who has managed Peccole Ranch for 11 years.

A constitutionally mandated decennial census has served as the official count of the U.S. population since 1790. Answers to the 12 prompts on the Census Bureau's questionnaire not only give a detailed statistical view of the demographic makeup of the country, but the data also are used to determine the changing needs of communities—making it paramount that an accurate count of each household is achieved.


As Census Day (April 1) draws nearer, the Census Bureau has prepared multiple resources to assist the U.S. population in responding to the census, such as guides in more than 40 languages to help residents answer the questionnaire as well as materials for people who are deaf, visually impaired, or have limited mobility.

Community associations can play an important role by encouraging residents to respond through newsletter articles, website content, and bulletin board posts. Residents, board members, community managers, and association staff should expect to see census takers knocking on doors starting in May.

“I think if you had someone in every HOA putting (information about the census) in their newsletter, individuals would respond quickly and accurately," says Wendy Underhill, director of elections and redistricting at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) in Denver.

Most households will receive an invitation in mid-March to respond to the census by mail, phone, or web—the first time this option will be available. Community associations should encourage residents to answer the questionnaire online to reduce in-person follow-up from census takers, says Dawn Bauman, CAE, CAI's senior vice president of government and public affairs.

Bauman adds that CAI will partner with the Census Bureau to provide information to associations, including the expected timing of each step in the 2020 census timeline, available resources from the agency to prepare communities, and best practices when granting access to workers.



At Peccole Ranch, Porter worked to revise the community's operational procedure to grant Census Bureau staff access to the association's 19 neighborhoods. In addition, she has assisted in putting together materials to educate community managers in the state of Nevada on the importance of the census and how to help their association boards adopt a policy similar to that of Peccole Ranch.

Porter notes that the main challenges to achieving an accurate survey of the community are tallying the number of homeowners who recently lost their homes to wildfires and determining how to count homeless persons who frequently camp on various stretches of open land in the association.

To increase awareness, Porter says that Peccole Ranch's board is determining whether to have a representative from the Census Bureau speak at upcoming spring events.


Data gathered in the census is used in a variety of ways by federal, tribal, state, and local government officials, nongovernmental organizations, research institutions, and commercial enterprises. Underhill explains that it's about dollars, democracy, and decision-making.

For instance, census data is required to apportion seats to the U.S. House of Representatives. “On Dec. 31, we'll know how many states will have the same number of (congressional) seats, how many will gain, and how many will lose," says Underhill.

Similarly, the data contribute to defining the boundaries for voting precincts and congressional, state legislative, and school districts—known as redistricting— and helps enforce voting and civil rights legislation, according to the Census Bureau's 2020 operational plan. Redistricting ensures there is an equal population across all politically representational districts in a state, Underhill explains.

In addition, data collected in the census serve to establish the statistical sampling frames for other Census Bureau surveys, including the American Community Survey (ACS) and the American Housing Survey (AHS), which determine how an estimated $675 billion in federal funds are distributed to communities each year for infrastructure, education, healthcare, housing, transportation, employment, and other publicly funded programs. “So many things that we rely on use federal funding, and those allocations come from the census," says Katie Strotman, a community impact unit manager for Fairfax County, Va. “If our numbers are off, we live with them for 10 years."

Cara Brumfield, senior policy analyst at Georgetown University's Center on Poverty and Inequality, explains that the ACS and AHS allow them to track poverty rates in certain communities and understand how poverty is changing in the U.S. “That's important when you're thinking about planning where to place affordable housing," she adds.

Business and private entities increasingly depend on data from the census to make decisions at the local and national level, which impact economic growth. For example, the Census Bureau's operational plan notes that real estate developers rely on this data to measure demand for housing, predict future needs, and review aggregate trends based on characteristics such as population growth and income levels.

Underhill says that housing data also is useful to legislators. The census questionnaire asks respondents whether their house, apartment, or mobile home is mortgaged or owned outright by someone in the household, rented, or occupied without the resident making rent or mortgage payments.

“As housing choices change, the census gives a good representation of that," but only if every individual living in the U.S. has submitted their responses, Underhill notes.


For the first time in its 230-year history, the census will give U.S. residents the option to fill out the questionnaire online if they choose not to submit responses by mail or phone.

Online responses will allow the Census Bureau to reduce the average number of worker visits to households in person and to obtain data from increasingly mobile groups as well as hard-to-count populations, including immigrants, older adults, people with disabilities, and those who reside in remote locations.

In urban areas, the most common transient populations are renters, college students, and those who are displaced or homeless, says Olivia Snarski, program manager for local democracy at the National League of Cities (NLC), a membership association that advocates for the interests of over 19,000 cities, towns, and villages nationwide.

With the emphasis being on receiving responses online, Snarski says that NLC has partnered with city and municipal officials, nongovernmental organizations, and census advocates to educate residents in urban areas. Despite its convenience, the online option may not capture segments of the population lacking computer literacy or internet access, something that is particularly pressing for those living in rural America, says Brumfield.

Hard-to-count residents also include those with a nontraditional mailing address, living in recently built homes, or with addresses that are hidden—those that do not show up in the Census Bureau's system.

“If, for example, someone is living in the garage of a house, the Census Bureau might not know that's a separate household from the main household. Or if they're in a rural area, and their house is set back from the road so far that it's not visible, then the Census Bureau might not even know to go and knock on those doors or to send a questionnaire," Brumfield explains.

The diversity of the U.S. population, including people who do not speak English as their native language and have a different cultural upbringing, or immigrants who may feel at risk because of their legal status, means that many residents may not feel comfortable with submitting their responses.

These challenges increase the risk of both rural and urban jurisdictions being undercounted, putting residents at a disadvantage. “When communities are undercounted, they might not get their fair share of federal funding" or political representation, Brumfield emphasizes.

The Census Bureau has assured that the responses it collects are confidential and can only be used to generate statistical data. By law, individuals' information cannot be shared with immigration or law enforcement agencies or used to determine eligibility for government benefits.


Many local governments and nongovernmental organizations have established complete count committees that promote initiatives to boost response rates to the census. According to NCSL, as of early February, 44 states and the District of Columbia have passed executive orders or actions to establish the committees.

Fairfax County, Va., formed its committee nearly two years ago. It is made up of 45 members representing non-profit, community, and service organizations, local businesses, and faith-based institutions who recognize “the importance of getting an accurate count," Strotman explains.

The committee has been conducting research, outreach, and education. Its efforts have included reviewing data from the 2010 census to project where hard-to-count populations are located, organizing dialogues between staff members from the Census Bureau and residents, distributing information about the 2020 census at local events, and making sure that community leaders are informed and educated.

“We've also talked about (having a) Census Weekend right before April 1 so that multiple organizations are doing outreach," says Strotman, adding that this might include directly approaching residents during an event encouraging them to fill out the census, or having computers​ available for people to respond to the questionnaire online at the community centers around Fairfax County.

NCSL also has been providing information to legislators and their staff on the importance of the census in the allocation of federal funds for each state, the redistricting process, and identifying potential hard-to-count populations, which can be shared with constituents through newsletters and town halls. Some legislators also have supported the census by submitting bills delivering funding for outreach campaigns or leading the creation of complete count committees, notes Underhill.


Conducting a household count of the U.S. population provides a snapshot of the transforming needs of the entire nation, which is why encouraging everyone to participate is crucial to ensure accuracy.

“Understanding who is living where … is going to make big decisions possible at the city level on where to build schools, hospitals, and high-rise residential buildings," Snarski explains. “Whether or not the data is accurate, real estate developers and policymakers will continue to use census data. If they're basing their decisions on how to develop land and how to build their cities on inaccurate data, that's going to be poor decision-making for the population that lives there."

NCSL's Underhill agrees: “Legislators make policy decisions based on data. If there are inaccuracies in the data, if people haven't been counted for whatever reason, then the decisions are less accurate as well."

Porter notes that 2010 census data was used when proposing to build a bocce ball court in Peccole Ranch, which she says is now one of its most popular amenities. By looking at the demographics in the community, she adds that the association is better able to determine which amenities will be the main draw, coordinate activities, and establish programs that maintain residents' interests and engagement.

“Successful social events build a sense of community, and the census helps us get right to that community spirit," she says.

Kiara Candelaria is the associate editor of Common Ground™ magazine.​


Digital Outreach​

THE U.S. CENSUS BUREAU is allowing respondents of the 2020 census to submit their answers online for the first time. The change comes as the digital landscape has gradually expanded, and the agency hopes to capture an increasingly diverse and mobile population that also are avid internet users.

This reality brings new opportunities for stakeholder groups to reach a wider audience. For example, the National League of Cities (NLC), a membership association that advocates for the interests of over 19,000 cities, towns, and villages nationwide, has rolled out a series of resources to help city officials and local community leaders prepare for the 2020 census, including a municipal action guide.

The reference document provides information on why the census is important for residents of urban areas and how city leaders can collaborate with the Census Bureau. It also includes talking points for constituents, specific community considerations, and a checklist with tasks for officials to complete leading up to the 2020 census. The guide is available to download at

Olivia Snarski, program manager for local democracy at NLC, says that these tools are being provided to improve counts.

“The census is the largest free data available in terms of infrastructure planning," Snarski explains. “What we want to ensure is that city officials have access to complete and accurate data … that will be guiding decision-making for the next 10 years." ​​—K.C.​​


​​​Important Dates

MARCH 12–20

U.S. households begin receiving mail with instructions on how to respond to the 2020 census.


Census Day is observed nationwide. Households will be invited to respond online, by phone, or by mail.


Census takers will begin visiting homes that have not responded to the 2020 census.

DEC. 31

Apportionment counts are delivered to federal government leaders.

MARCH 31, 2021

Redistricting counts are sent to states.



Count On It

Is your community association prepared for the 2020 census? Find information on how to respond, why answers matter, privacy, and security by visiting



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