Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of student produced stories looking at the 2020 census.
“I have heard of the census, but I don’t know what it is,” Dougherty Valley High School sophomore Sydney Mock said. “I think it’s a document?”
“Even though I know what the census is, I don’t know why it’s important,” Saadhvi Natarajan, another sophomore at Dougherty Valley, said.
Mock and Natarajan aren’t alone in their knowledge of the 2020 U.S. Census, which began in late March. Out of 20 students randomly surveyed recently at Dougherty Valley, 17 said they didn’t know what the census was. Even after they were provided with a definition — “The U.S. census counts every resident in the United States and every 10 years” — 15 of the students said they hadn’t heard of this.
According to the Pew Research Center, “31 percent of 18-29 year-olds say they have never heard of the U.S. Census, and 17 percent say they are still unfamiliar with it even when it is described as the count of all people living in the country.”
This is a big problem.
“Participating in the census is in everyone’s best interest because the information on the forms is used by decision-makers to determine which communities, schools, hospitals and roads need federal funding,” wrote Dave Roos, a journalist, in his article, “How the Census Works,” published on the HowStuffWorks web site which contains explanations of how things work. Roos noted that by participating in the census one can improve public places and allow people to live better lives.
Johann Somerville, a Dougherty Valley U.S. history teacher, noted that the census is used for many things. He said it provides invaluable data to governments which helps them make important decisions that affect nearly everyone in the U.S. He said the census “helps us understand how each community is comprised demographically.” Then, for example, the data can help governments “give funding to areas that have a lower income level.”
Somerville, who covers the census as part of his curriculum, said, “It decides what the appropriate number of members of the House of Representatives there should be per state. It’s even more important because it helps appropriate billions of dollars of funding to each state.”
Many young people, however, fail to see the importance of the census. The Pew Research Center found that fewer than half of people younger than 30 said the census is very important for the country. “I personally am just not interested in the census,” Mock said. “All of the statistics don’t seem very interesting to me.”
Some may argue that teenagers can be forgiven for being unaware. After all, they were very young when the last census was held. But educators and others concerned about civic life say it’s never too early for young people to learn about events that impact their lives and communities.
Somerville said that voting districts and federal funding changes, based on census results, and that “businesses around the country rely on census results to make decisions, such as where to open new stores, restaurants, factories, or offices; where to expand operations; where to recruit employees; and which products and services to offer,” all of which affect teenagers’ lives in major ways.
To work on solving this issue, there are a multitude of steps to be taken. For one, people can work on educating teenagers about the census, allowing them to be more aware about its existence and what it entails. The government can also do outreach programs in high schools that increase awareness of the census and help students understand its importance.
A program called “Statistics in Schools” makes interactive, informative, and interesting activities and resources for school-aged children using census data in order to better educate them about the importance of the census. This allows schools to receive better funding, thus incentivizing them to continue teaching about the census.
“We need to educate the public on this topic, which in my opinion can be taken care of outside the classroom,” Somerville said. “More time needs to be spent explaining what the census is and how it helps.”
The Census Bureau has taken a number of steps to encourage educating teenagers about the census. For example, it made a community outreach tool kit available that schools can use in their curriculum to increase young people’s general understanding of the census.
The importance of the census may be overlooked in today’s world, but “in an era of misinformation,” it’s more important than ever, Somerville said. Census information “helps us truly fight for what we are owed and what we deserve, and we can’t have it taken away from us without even a fight.”
To learn more about resources in this story, go to: https://people.howstuffworks.com/census.htm, https://www.ichabodcrane.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/2020-Census-Stats-in-Schools.pdf and https://www.census.gov/partners/toolkit.pdf.
Shruthi Narayanan is a sophomore and staff writer on her school newspaper, “The Wildcat Tribune.”
This story originally appeared as part of a special section in “CC Spin,” a county-wide student newspaper produced by students at participating Contra Costa County high schools.