Imagine the difficulty involved in counting every person in the United States in 1790, the year the U.S. first completed a census of the entire country. At that time, United States marshals covered the country on horseback and visited each and every household in order to ask just six questions:
1.The name of the free white head of household.
Covering the original 13 states, plus the districts of Kentucky, Maine and Vermont along with the Southwest Territory which is now Tennessee, took over nine months.
Florida was not counted in the census until 1820 and had 54,861 reported residents at that time. To put that into perspective, Okeechobee County has approximately 42,000 residents today, said Okeechobee County Library Director Kresta King. “For the last two years, the United States Census Bureau has said that libraries would be the forefront when it came to the 2020 census. We would be where people could go to fill out the census. We would be the ones who could do it for them. That was supposed to start in March. I think March 19 was the day the library closed because of COVID. Libraries nationwide closed. Glades County Library is not open yet. They don’t know if they will be open by January 1. COVID put the biggest hit on our response rate,” she said.
King went on to explain that COVID has affected the response rates in other ways. Prior to the virus, King was going to different organizations in town and speaking to groups to explain the importance of completing the census. When COVID hit, speaking engagements at Kiwanis and the Rotary Club, etc. came to a complete halt. Even the meeting room at the library can only be opened in a limited fashion seating, at most 10 people. “Historically, the problem has been, people don’t want the government in their business or they are worried about immigration. Those were problems that needed to be overcome before COVID.”
King said she learned some interesting facts in her research about the census. Not only was she surprised to learn the census dates back as far as 1790, but she also found:
• It was put into the constitution that it be completed every 10 years.
• It was the first pinpoint of democracy. (Prior to this, when countries did a census, it was for the purpose of taxation, to confiscate property and to draft youth to the military. The United States did it in order to give the people a way to oversee the government.)
• The first census was completed 24 years before the Star Spangled Banner was written.
• 3.9 million people were counted in the first census.
“And we have about 40 million in Florida alone now,” she said.
The deadline for completing the census is Sept. 30, and according to King, the response rate for the state of Florida is 64% as of August 31. Okeechobee County has only had 46.8% response which places our county near the very bottom of the 67 Florida counties. She explained the census is used as a way to determine how much money each county needs to fund different programs such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), Federal Pell Grant Program, The School Lunch Program, Head Start, WIC, CHIP (State Children’s Health Insurance Program), School Breakfast Program, Low Income Housing Assistance (This helps senior citizens.), Unemployment Insurance, Child and Adult Care Food Program, Wildlife Restoration, Adult Education, Community Development Grants, Emergency Food Assistance Programs, Emergency Shelter Grant Programs, Child Welfare Services Grants, Family Violence Prevention Grants. The list goes on and on.
The money to help each county in the state of Florida is out there, she explained, but if we only have 46% reporting, we will only get that much money. For the next 10 years, we will have to support 100% of the people and the programs with only 46% of the money. If Palm Beach County has 88% of their people respond, they will get 88% of their funding, and it will have to be enough for the next 10 years to take care of 100% of their people and programs. If we do not get all the money we need, we will have to make cuts somewhere. It could be in the school lunch program or in the SNAP program or any one of the hundreds of programs the funds are used for, she explained. Just because only 46% of the people respond does not mean we really have less people here and actually need less money. It would be like planning a meal for your family and only buying food for half your family. The whole family will still eat, and everyone will be hungry. If we do not have a better response on the census, our entire county will be very hungry for the next 10 years.
Anyone who needs to complete the census can go online to my2020census.gov or call 844-330-2020 or they can walk into the library, and ask someone to complete it for them, King said. Anyone who works there would be more than willing to assist them.