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U.S. Census 2020: A Comprehensive Guide

Your response matters! Census results help determine how billions of dollars in federal funding flow into states and communities each year, shaping many aspects of your community: schools, health clinics, roads, and more.

Every 10 years, the federal government conducts a population count of everyone in the United States. This once-in-a-decade snapshot of who we are is mandated by the U.S. Constitution. You are an important part of that picture and your response counts.

April 1, 2020 is 2020 Census Day. You may receive information prior to that time, but you are asked to count everyone who is living in your residence as of April 1, 2020. More information about the timeline and who to count in the Frequently Asked Questions below.

The Importance of Census 2020

Census 2020 is important for dollars, democracy, and data.


In 2016 the federal government distributed more than $880 billion dollars for health, education, and infrastructure. Washington State received $16.7 billion dollars in federal funds, or $2,319 per person:

  • $8.5 billion for health programs
  • $2.4 billion for education
  • $1.2 billion for housing
  • $550 million for rural assistance programs
  • Nearly $1 billion in bridge and highway maintenance and construction

For each 100 households missed in the 2020 Census, Washington could lose $5.8 million over a 10-year period. As the Washington Census Alliance says, “Because the Census happens only once every 10 years, the consequences of having inaccurate data are not just statistical. People’s lives could be significantly impacted for an entire decade.”

More information about the financial importance of the 2020 Census:


  • The results of the Census determine the number of seats each state will have in the U.S. House of Representatives. In the 2010 Census, Washington gained an additional representative to Congress.
  • Census data is also used to draw congressional and state legislative districts, as well every level of government down to school districts.
  • Completing Census 2020 is your civic duty.


  • Federal, state and local government agencies rely on Census data for planning and delivering services. Local governments use it to plan public safety and prepare for emergencies, Transportation planners use it to determine public transit routes and the location of roads and bridges.
  • Businesses use Census data to decide where to build factories, offices, and stores. Developers use it to decide where to build houses or commercial buildings.
  • Nonprofits, and citizen organizations use Census date to identify community needs, requesting funding for programs and putting forth community initiatives involving quality-of-life issues and consumer advocacy.

More information about how Census data is used:

Local Census Resources

Whatcom Counts

The local effort to count everyone has a Facebook page

Opportunity Council
Offers information on local events and location of where people can get assistance in answering the Census Questionnaire. This is also the contact for the Complete Count Committee of Whatcom County.

Christina Veloz, United States Census Bureau Tribal Partnership Specialist, 425-948-5122, christina.m.veloz@2020Census.gov

Frequently Asked Questions


More information: American Civil Liberties Union of Washington FAQs on the 2020 Decennial Census webpage.

Yes, it’s the law and your civic responsibility.

While you are unlikely to to be subject to the consequences established by law, if you are living in the United States you are legally required to respond. Your swift and complete response helps keep costs down — and saves taxpayers’ dollars — by eliminating the need to reach out to your household multiple times.

More information: Do I have to respond to the Census? Q&A about the 2020 Census, Office of Financial Management, State of Washington

The Census Bureau will contact you by mail, and you can respond online, by telephone, or by mail.

The Census Bureau expects many households to complete the Questionnaire online, using instructions received in the mail. These instructions will also include information about how to respond by telephone. Some households will receive a printed Questionnaire which they can mail, postage-free, back to the Census Bureau. A small percentage of households, primarily located in remote areas of the country, will be visited by a Census taker who will help collect the necessary information to complete the form.

For current information on the Census schedule, see this page on the Census website.

You also have the option to fill out a paper version of the Census Questionnaire, or answer the Questionnaire over the phone. Your local library has public computers and wifi and can get you started on filling out the Questionnaire. Check here for locations and hours:

Check the Opportunity Council’s 2020 Census web page for other local sources of assistance.

No. You do not need email to complete the Census Questionnaire online.

Approximately 10 minutes. As the Office of Financial Management says “10 minutes, 10 questions, and you will benefit your community for the next 10 years.”

See the U.S. Census web page About Questions to review the questions. Linked below is a video overview provided by the U.S. Census Bureau that also reviews each question.

You are required by law to answer all the questions on the Census Questionnaire. (Title 13, United States Code, Section 221). If you skip questions and submit an incomplete Census form you are technically liable for a fine of up to $5,000. But, as the Office of Financial Management states: “The Census Bureau is not a prosecuting agency; and failure to provide information is not like to result in a fine.” However, returning a partially filled-out Questionnaire may result in a follow-up phone call or visit from a Census worker.

More information:

Q&A about the 2020 Census, Office of Financial Management, State of Washington

What You Need to Know About the Census, National Public Radio

FAQs on the 2020 Decennial Census web page, American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.

The Office of Financial Management states that the general rule of thumb is to count people at their usual residence, which is defined as the place where they live and sleep most of the time.

Still, in today’s world where everyone is on the go, sometimes that simple definition is not enough. See the document below for answers to many questions about how and where to count: people away from their residence on Census day; people who live or stay in more than one place; college students; people in health care facilities; foreigners and visitors; U.S. military; homeless; and many more residency situations.

For more detail:

2020 Census Residence Criteria and Residence Situations

Who to count

The U.S. Census Bureau states that the agency is committed to producing quality statistical data, while upholding its mandate to safeguard privacy and protect the confidentiality of all individuals who share their information with us. The agency publishes aggregate statistics showing the characteristics of the American people and make it available on the internet. These statistics do not reveal names, addresses or any other information that would identify an individual respondent or business.

Title 13 of the U.S. Code strictly prohibits the Census Bureau from releasing personal data collected on an individual or business for any purpose to anyone or any other federal, state or local government. The law carries a fine of up to $250,000 and up to five years imprisonment for employees who violate this statute.

More information:

Census and Confidentiality (pdf), Office of Financial Management, State of Washington

Data Protection and Privacy Program, United States Census Bureau

How the Census Bureau Protects Your Data, United States Census Bureau

Federal Laws That Protect Census Confidentiality, Brennan Center for Justice

2020 is the first time the Census Questionnaire can be completed online. Concerns about cybersecurity have been raised. The U.S. Census Bureau states that the agency has a team of cybersecurity experts who monitor and protect all agency technology around the clock. The agency’s cybersecurity meets the highest standards for protecting your information, with the goal — and legal obligation — of keeping your data safe from the moment your responses are collected. The Census Bureau’s technology is protected by strong authentication and authorization methods and is fully “locked down” so that it can only be accessed by fully vetted individuals who are trained in data and cybersecurity.

More information:

Data Stewardship, United States Census Bureau

Cyber Security and Maintaining Public Trust, United States Census Bureau

No, states the U.S. Census Bureau. The law prevents the Census Bureau from sharing your information with law enforcement. Your answers cannot be used to impact your eligibility for government benefits. Your answers are only used to create statistics about our country. The Census Bureau is bound by Title 13 of the U.S. Code to protect your personal information and keep it strictly confidential.

More information:

Fighting 2020 Census Rumors, United States Census Bureau

The U.S. Census Bureau will never ask for:

  • Your Social Security number
  • Your mother’s maiden name
  • Money or donations
  • Credit card or bank account information
  • Your personal information through email

Any field representatives who come to your home will always have official Census identification.

More information:

How to identify a Census Field Representative, United States Census Bureau

How to identify a call from an interviewer, United States Census Bureau

How to detect and report phishing and scams, United States Census Bureau

Avoiding Fraud and Scams, United States Census Bureau

Spotting a census scam (pdf), Office of Financial Management, State of Washington

For local help, contact the Opportunity Council. This agency is one of several local agencies assisting locally about the 2020 Census.

The U.S. Census Bureau will make the Census Questionnaire and other materials available in multiple languages based on its understanding of populations in the United States with limited English-speaking households.

The Census Questionnaire will be available in Spanish as a print version, as well as on the enumerators’ tablets as options when doing field enumeration.

When responding online, the Internet Self-Response Instrument will be available in 12 non-English languages, which include Spanish, Chinese (Simplified), Vietnamese, Korean, Russian, Arabic, Tagalog, Polish, French, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, and Japanese.

The Census Bureau will provide Census Questionnaire Assistance by phone in 12 non-English languages, including Spanish, Chinese (Simplified), Vietnamese, Korean, Russian, Arabic, Tagalog, Polish, French, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, and Japanese, as well as in American Sign Language.

The U.S. Census Bureau will also produce a glossary of Census terms, a card for enumerators to identify the language of the household, and video and print guides will be available in the 59 non-English languages.

More information:

Language Resources, United States Census Bureau

For general questions: call 301-763-INFO (4636) or 800-923-8282.
For information on services for people who are deaf or hard of hearing: Call the TTY number at 800-877-8339 to reach the Federal Relay Service.

Check the Fighting 2020 Census Rumors page for the Census Bureau’s answers to the latest 2020 Census rumor.

Here are a few nonpartisan sources to check the accuracy of what is in the news, internet or social media:




The U.S. Census Bureau is recruiting people across the country to assist with the 2020 Census count. These time-limited jobs are important to a successful census. Census employees receive a competitive wage, have flexible hours, and many government assistance programs do not count census earnings when determining eligibility.

2020 Census Recruiters are holding special employment recruitment sessions in our area, including at the Bellingham Public Library in the Central Library. Check our online calendar for dates of these sessions, or visit the 2020 Census Jobs web page.