Census important to area representation
BELOIT – In March, mailboxes across the country will bring an opportunity that only comes around once in a decade – the chance to be counted during the U.S. Census.
Getting a complete and accurate count of all the people who live in Northwest Kansas on Census Day, April 1, is important for many reasons. Census results have long been used in determining the distribution of federal funding that supports schools, highways, hospitals and other community needs. They are also a resource widely used for emergency preparedness, community planning or by businesses deciding whether to open a store or restaurant or provide a service in the area.
However, the original purpose of the Founding Fathers when they mandated in the Constitution that a census be taken every 10 years makes the effort worthwhile on its own. Census population figures are used to set the number of representatives each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as the number of electoral votes for each state during a presidential election.
“The Framers of the Constitution in 1787 understood the importance of the relationship between the people and representation,” said Jay Steinmetz, an assistant professor who teaches American politics, political theory and public law at Fort Hays State University. “Enumeration – censuses every 10 years – has been an important part of American history.”
In 1790, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson oversaw about 650 U.S. marshals and assistants who completed the first census on foot and by horseback in the 13 original states and four future states. The final headcount of more than 3.9 million was tallied on forms made of parchment and animal skin. It caused the House of Representatives to increase from 65 to 105 members, so that people living across the new country would have a proportional say in creating the laws that would govern them.
During the 2020 Census, people in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and five territories will provide information online, by phone, through the mail or by talking to a census worker. The results will be used to redraw congressional districts for the 435 members of the House of Representatives, as well as state legislative districts. Each state’s congressional districts are kept roughly equal in population, with districts nationwide averaging about 711,000 people after redistricting following the 2010 census.
Paige Wilson, media specialist for the 2020 Census in Kansas, said workers are still being sought to help conduct the census in several Northwest Kansas counties. Interested applicants can apply at 2020census.gov/jobs. A background and fingerprint check will be required. Training will begin in March and April, and the work is expected to last through July. The jobs offer part-time, flexible hours, paid mileage and weekly paychecks. Wilson said the work would be good for college students, teachers, retirees or someone looking for supplemental income.
“Most of the work is nights and weekends because you are going to see people mostly when they would be home,” Wilson said. “The pay range varies where you live, but most of Kansas starts at $15 an hour. You would be working in your community, helping your own neighbors and helping your community.”
Kansas once had eight seats in the House, but since the 1990 census, the state has had four representatives. Northwest Kansas is part of the 1st Congressional District, which includes 69 counties in western and northcentral Kansas and is already geographically one of the largest districts in the nation. Rep. Roger Marshall, R-Great Bend, has represented the area since 2017.
During the 2010 census, 192,231 people were counted in the 26 counties of Northwest Kansas covered by the Dane G. Hansen Foundation. By 2018, estimates were showing an overall population decline for the area of nearly 3 percent, for an estimated total population of 186,687.
Steinmetz said population decline, which has been happening in Northwest Kansas for more than a century, is a key concern in making sure the area is adequately represented.
“Censuses become absolutely vital in showing the people who are there and the needs in rural areas that need to be represented and heard,” he said. “We have water issues. We have energy issues. We have environmental issues, and we have farmed, cultivated agricultural land. All of these things require an active role of government to ensure that resources are being utilized and also conserved and protected and that rights are protected.”
A step toward getting Northwest Kansas voices heard is ensuring that every one of this area’s residents is counted – from the oldest to the youngest, including babies who are born on or before April 1.
Between March 12 and 20, most households will receive a letter with information about how to complete the 2020 Census online or by phone. Some will receive paper questionnaires. Questions will be asked about the name, age, gender and race of each person living in the household. The Census Bureau does not ask for money, a full Social Security number, bank or credit card account numbers or information about political affiliations.
The Census Bureau collects data on everyone – regardless of U.S. citizenship – at the residence where they usually live and sleep. The information is used for statistical purposes only, without identifying any individual person. By law, information collected is confidential and cannot be shared with law enforcement agencies, immigration authorities or be used to determine eligibility for government benefits.
While a complete count is important across the country, in an area like Northwest Kansas where there are fewer residents, making sure each one of them participates is vital, Steinmetz said.
“It is just so much more important in terms of representation,” he said.