Stand Up, Be Counted (A lot of Money Is At Stake)

Get the word out to friends, family and colleagues: fill out your census form online in mid-March. To learn more about the District’s census engagement plan and how employers can help, the FC2 hosted Melissa Bird, Executive Director of the DC Office of Planning’s DC Census 2020.

Employers have a big role to play. At a minimum, employers should remind employees to be counted. They could set aside a time for employees to “Take a Break, Take the Census.” For a broader reach, they could send reminders to get counted through their organization’s networks. They could even help identify the the 500 to 3000 people the Census will need to hire to promote the DC Census campaign.

Getting counted matters for maximizing the billions of federal dollars the District could receive every year for everything from Medicaid, Title 1 grants, housing vouchers and highway construction. For every undercounted resident, the District misses out on $6,000 per year in federal dollars. An accurate count, in other words, lifts some of the burden on the local tax base.

It also matters for our own city’s planning. How many playgrounds or pre-K slots will we need to accommodate our burgeoning under-5 population? Where should the borders for ANCs and wards be drawn? Utilities like Pepco and Washington Gas need to make sure they build out service at the same pace as population growth.

The data collected will also be invaluable for businesses. The data can inform critical business decisions—like where and how to expand, hiring strategies, ways to mitigate risks or increase returns on investment.

The District has struggled with a relatively low Census response rate. A recent D.C. Policy Center report found that among the 33 largest cities in the country, DC had the second-highest undercount rate in 2010–of 2.23 percent. That means the 2010 Census count of DC’s population was about 2.23 percent lower than its estimated actual population. DC also has a higher concentration of hard-to-count areas (like Wards 5, 7 and 8) compared to the rest of the metro area. Roughly 40 percent of District residents are expected not to respond during the self-response phase of the 2020 Census.

To her credit, Mayor Bowser is taking the 2020 Census seriously. She’s funding census outreach at $2.5 million, which is far more than neighboring jurisdictions. Melissa’s office has trained 800 ambassadors to meet with church groups, immigrant communities and parents at schools. In addition, $800,000 of grants have been awarded to 16 community-based organizations to do Census outreach. Many DC residents are worried their personal information will be given to law enforcement or landlords—which is false. All census responses are confidential. They need to know that being counted means they would receive more and better social services. Community organizations and trained ambassadors can be trusted messengers to allay security or privacy concerns.

Here’s how the 2020 Census will be rolled out. The biggest change from ten years ago is that the questionnaire has been moved online. It’s cheaper to administer, easier to track response rates in real-time and could lead to higher response rates among young people and those with quick internet access. In mid-March, everyone will receive a notice in the mail inviting them to fill out the online questionnaire. Those who don’t respond will receive more reminders in the mail. By late April, non-responders will receive a hard-copy questionnaire. If still no response, door knocking begins in May through July. Residents in historically undercounted communities will get a hard copy questionnaire in the first wave of mailings in mid-March.

Melissa’s office is getting creative about messaging and partnerships to max-out participation. They’re making special reminder flyer inserts for restaurants to stick next to someone’s bill. The Nationals plan to post signs at the baseball stadium’s front gate, encouraging fans waiting in lines to spend their wait filling out their Census information.

Filling out the questionnaire should only take ten minutes. The main questions are:

  • How many people living at your home?
  • What is the age, race, sex of each person in household?
  • Is your home owned or rented?
  • Is there a person in the household is of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin?
  • What is the relationship of each person in the household to one central person (usually the person completing the form for the household)?

For more information and to learn how you can help count every DC resident, please visit or email Melissa Bird at