Many teens are unaware of the United States Census: Why is this a problem?

Shruthi Narayanan, Staff Writer

“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 High School, said.

Mock and Natarajan aren’t alone in their knowledge of the 2020 U.S. Census, which begins in late March. Out of 20 students randomly surveyed recently at Dougherty Valley High School, 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 every 10 years” — 15 of the students said they haven’t heard of this. Similar results have been found nationwide; according to the Pew Research Center, “31% of 18-29 year-olds say they have never heard of the U.S. Census, and 17% 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,” Dave Roos, a freelance journalist, wrote in his article titled“How the Census Works.” He noted that by participating in the census one can improve public places and allow people to live better lives. 

Johann Somerville, a Dougherty Valley High School U.S. history teacher who covers the census as part of his curriculum, noted there are many things the census is used for. He said it provides invaluable data to governments that they use to make important decisions that affect nearly everyone in the U.S. The census “helps us understand how each community is comprised demographically.” The data can then help governments “give funding to areas that have a lower income level.” 

“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,” Somerville continued.

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 the younger generation to learn about events that impact their lives and communities. 

According to Somerville, 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.

Others may argue that teenagers have only experienced one census in their lifetime, which occurred when they were very young, so it is understandable that they are unaware of what the U.S. Census is. Still, teens are held responsible for knowing about all other facets of government from elementary school onwards, so it would be reasonable for them to be responsible for knowing about the census, perhaps by adding it to the school curriculum.

A program called “Statistics in Schools” makes interactive, informative, and interesting activities 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. 

 To work on solving this issue, there are a multitude of steps that can be taken. For one, people can work on educating teenagers about the census, allowing them to be more aware of 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.

“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.”