Got Some Time on Your Hands? Fill Out Your Census Form

April 1 was Census Day, but you likely won’t see census workers at your door until the summer

Tom Giffey

(Photo: U.S. Census Bureau)
(Photo: U.S. Census Bureau)

As it happens, our nationwide coronavirus quarantine coincides with the 2020 census – the constitutionally mandated, once-a-decade count of all Americans. And unlike the Olympics, the Final Four, and the NBA, it takes more than an unprecedented global pandemic to stop the census. True, the U.S. Census Bureau has adjusted its schedule because of the coronavirus, giving households extra time to respond to the notices they got in the mail before sending census enumerators to their doors. (A good choice, considering most of the nation is locked down and probably not interested in seeing strangers on their doorsteps right now.)

Regardless of the pandemic, the census is an important process that will impact everything from political representation to federal aid for the coming decade. That’s why a wide variety of local leaders has been working together to ensure everyone in the Chippewa Valley is counted.

“Our goal is to have an accurate count and a complete count of the Chippewa Valley,” said Pat Ivory, senior planner with the City of Eau Claire. Ivory has been part of the Eau Claire County Complete Count Partnership, which includes representatives from the county, the cities of Eau Claire and Altoona, UW-Eau Claire, Chippewa Valley Technical College, the Eau Claire Area School District, and other groups.

“Our goal is to have an accurate count and a complete count of the Chippewa Valley,” said Pat Ivory, senior planner with the City of Eau Claire.

To committee is working to ensure that everyone who should be counted gets counted, including traditionally undercounted populations such as immigrants, students, people who speak English as a second language, and those experiencing homelessness. The Complete Count Committee will be setting up questionnaire assistance centers late in April or in May – depending on the public health situation, of course. In the meanwhile, they’re encouraging everyone to fill out their census forms – online or in person – while UWEC and CVTC are contacting students to remind them to complete their forms as Eau Claire residents.

“Hopefully in the long run, it will get sorted out and the students who are going to school here will get counted here,” Ivory said. College students are important to getting a complete count: UWEC’s undergraduate enrollment is about 9,500, or roughly 14% of the city’s estimated population.

Overall, according to state’s Demographic Services Center, as of Jan. 1, 2019, the city had an estimated population of 68,057. That’s a 3.3% increase over the 2010 census tally of 65,931. But of course, we won’t officially know how many of us there are until after the 2020 census is completed.


There are three ways you can respond to the census. The easiest for everyone involved is to respond online. If you’re like most Americans with a mailing address, you’ve probably already seen a piece of mail (or two or three) from the U.S. Census Bureau. These letters encourage you to visit my2020census.gov and enter your personalized Census I.D. Doing so will allow you to fill out the short census questionnaire from the comfort of your own home, where you are most likely already hanging out for the foreseeable future.

Lost the letter? Don’t worry. You can still go to the above website and fill the form out without an I.D. code; you’ll just input your home address instead. When you do, you’ll get a straightforward list of questions about yourself and the others in your household, including your age, gender, racial and ethnic background, and how you are related. (There are no questions about citizenship status on the census.)

Households that don’t respond online (either because they don’t have Internet access or because SOMEONE is using all the bandwidth to stream reruns of The Office) can expect to see a paper form arrive in the mail by the middle of April. And if you don’t respond to that, eventually a census enumerator will come to your house to ask you the relevant questions. Because of the coronavirus, the Census Bureau now says those non-response follow-up visits won’t begin until June 1 at the earliest. (As of April 13, the Census Bureau is asking for a 120-day extension from Congress for some of its statutory deadlines.)


So, other than bragging rights (this may be the year that Eau Claire finally exceeds Oshkosh in population!), why does the City of Eau Claire – or any municipality, for that matter – care about getting its head count exactly correct?

The answers boil down to representation and money. The results of the 2020 census will be used to adjust the size and composition of everything from city voting wards to U.S. congressional districts. If all of the residents of the Chippewa Valley aren’t counted, it’s possible our area could be inadequately represented at the state and federal levels.

If all of the residents of the Chippewa Valley aren’t counted, it’s possible our area could be inadequately represented at the state and federal levels.

And, compounding that diminished political voice is the potential for a reduction in federal and state funding directed at local programs and people. According to a study conducted by George Washington University, for each person in Wisconsin missed by the census, the state loses out on roughly $1,600 in federal spending on human services, education, housing, transportation, and other programs.

Accurate numbers are important on a local level as well: Population trends help shape long-term community planning for everything from schools to senior centers, Ivory said. Wisconsin in general and Eau Claire in particular had among the best census response rates in the nation in 2010, and Ivory hopes that trend holds true again this year.

Put simply, taking a few minutes to fill out your questionnaire online can help your hometown a lot. And if you’re stuck at home right now, it’s a pretty painless act of civic virtue.