Census Privacy Concerns Prompt Action in Maryland County

A Frederick County committee is working to make sure people understand the importance of the upcoming 2020 Census. One of the challenges in getting people to participate is concern about data privacy.

by Heather Mongilio, The Frederick News-Post / January 21, 2020
Shutterstock

(TNS) — Census day might not be until April 1, but for members of Frederick County’s government, the census is already on their minds.

Beginning March 12, people will start receiving postcards with links to the now largely digital census. People can start taking it as soon as they receive a postcard, said Eileen Mitchell, Frederick County 2020 census grant coordinator.

The census is a population count that helps determine how federal funds are distributed and how political jurisdictional boundaries are drawn.

The census is nine questions and should take people about 10 to 15 minutes to fill out, depending on the number of people in the household, Mitchell said.

The questions ask the number of people living in a residence, each person’s name, telephone number, sex, race, relation, in addition to asking if the household owns or rents the home.

The census will not include a question about citizenship, despite controversy about a potential question last year.

But despite assurances, there is concern among some that private data would be released, said Malcolm Furgol, director of community impact for United Way of Frederick County.

One of the challenges in getting people to fill out the census is concern about privacy. There are populations that mistrust the government, he said, and so members of the Frederick County Complete Count Committee are working to make sure people understand that individual information will not be shared.

So while the census will release aggregate data, such as how many people live in Frederick County, census data collectors cannot release people’s names or phone numbers, Furgol said.

Another problem facing the committee is access to the census. By going all digital, it restricts access for some, including seniors. The committee and county government are working with senior centers and the library system to be able to have computers as well as helpers to assist people with filling out the census, Furgol said.

‘There’s always going to be a problem, the first time you do something,” Furgol said.

While the lower-income and rural areas of the county, such as Brunswick, Thurmont and Emmitsburg, are challenging, the areas of the county with the least reporting are parts of the city of Frederick, Furgol said.

Another undercounted population is children under 5, he said. So the committee is stressing that everyone living in the household needs to be counted. Children of divorce should be counted where they live on April 1, 2020.

College students who live in a dormitory will be counted by a school, Furgol said.

Committee members are also working with the U.S. Postal Service because people with post office boxes do not currently get any census information, he said.

Completing the census is important because the data informs further documents, including United Way’s Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed report. The data also helps direct federal funding, Furgol said.

Frederick County estimated it lost $11 million in funding due to undercounting in 2010. One person is the equivalent of $18,000 in funding over 10 years, according to a census fact sheet from the county government.

Mitchell said before she became the grant coordinator she did not realize how important the census was or how it affected her, her family or the community.

“And I think that’s something that hopefully we can get across to everybody who lives in Frederick County so that they know that [when they] answer the census, complete the census, that they are helping the whole community,” she said.

Filling out the census is required by law. Once a person gets the postcard, the household can fill out the census. If a person does not, they will receive another. Eventually, census employees will knock on the doors of people who have not filled it out, Mitchell said.

©2020 The Frederick News-Post (Frederick, Md.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Platforms & Programs