Wednesday was the official start to the 2020 Census, but Ellis County residents already had a jump on filling out their forms, much of it online, according to Henry Schwaller.


As of 1 p.m. Wednesday, 41.6% of the people in Ellis County had completed the Census, which every 10 years tries to count each person living in the United States.


That was slightly more than the 40.8% for the state of Kansas, both of which were higher than the 36.2% completed nationally, said Schwaller.


“So we are beating both the state and the nation’s response rates; it’s great,” said Schwaller, who was appointed by Gov. Laura Kelly to head the Ellis County Census task force of 16 people. “We’re fortunate to have a lot of early responders, and we like that.”


The 2020 Census is being done differently than in decades past, with people filling it out primarily online at 2020census.gov.


But 20% of Ellis County residents don’t have access to a computer, according to Schwaller.


“The goal is certainly to get older people who don’t have access to the internet,” he said. “The other is to make sure every child is counted. Here, children 5 and under are not counted; part of it is economic, their families don’t have the means to get on the internet, or the parents are working two jobs and don’t have the time. That’s something we’re going to continue to focus on.”


Most everyone should have received a postcard in the mail around mid-March, bearing a unique code for that address. The code is used to log in, and the Census site is up and working, he said.


Counting everyone is important for the financial interest of the community, said Schwaller.


For starters, Census numbers determine the county’s share of federal money for everything from highways and schools to school lunches and HaysMed.


“It’s equivalent to more than $2,000 per resident in Ellis County per year,” he said. “Ideally we want as high a count as possible to capture the dollars.”


There are hundreds of programs that benefit annually.


“If we miss even one person, over the next 10 years that’s more than $20,000 lost to our county,” Schwaller said.


Demographics determined by the Census count affect a range of programs, said Hays city manager Toby Dougherty.


Section 8 housing brings U.S. Housing and Urban Development dollars to the Ellis County Housing Authority for low-income renters. And there are Section 8 vouchers for landlords who designate their rental properties for low-income renters, Dougherty said.


Other federal dollars flow into Hays for the school readiness program Head Start, SNAP food stamps, the national health insurance program Medicare and the national children’s health insurance program, or CHIP, as well as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).


“All of those are based off population and demographics,” Dougherty said.


Commercial development


The Census also shows the growth or decline of a community over the decades, essentially measuring its health. Retailers, from grocery stores to restaurants to department stores, use population figures and demographics to decide where to locate new stores, he said.


“It’s important we get a solid count for our community,” Schwaller said.


Fort Hays State University students are normally counted as Hays residents during the Census. Even though the university has been closed and the students sent home prematurely, Schwaller said they should be counted here since normally this is where they live during the course of the school year.


“Our population is 22,000,” Schwaller said. “If those 4,000 are not counted, that could drop us to 18,000.”


The local Census committee has been working with the university to count students, he said.


Anyone can view real-time maps of Census progress in their township, city, county, state or nationwide at the 2020Census.gov website.


“There are real-time maps as people complete it, of which neighborhoods are completing it,” he said. “So we can focus as a community on the areas that aren’t responding.”


Members of the local Census task force represent Hays and Ellis County, major employers in town, education, economic development, the Hays Public Library and First Call for Help. Each of those has access to different populations, Schwaller said.


Some Census workers have already visited senior living facilities and the FHSU residence halls, getting head counts from facility managers.


Also, through further outreach, which is limited now by the virus, the Census workers will be looking for the parents of the many children that remain to be counted, he said. Then Census workers, who zero-in on low-responding neighborhoods, at some point will go door-to-door and try to contact the hard-to-reach families and get them counted.


An area already returning low response rates is Vine Street south of 13th Street to the US-183 highway bypass, over to Elm Street.


“With the pandemic, they’ve stopped going door-to-door for now,” Schwaller said. “I think we’re looking at August, realistically, to finish up.”


Library will help


Hays Public Library had planned a big Census event for April 1, since canceled, but there’s talk of doing something else, according to Samantha Gill, adult services manager.


“Right now we just really don’t know what that looks like,” Gill said. “The Census lasts through the summer months, so hopefully as a nation we’ll be up and running by that time.”


The plan was to help residents who need access to technology, as well as others. That remains the general idea.


“We’re still going to make it as big a deal as possible,” she said.


The online questionnaire is simple, Schwaller said.


It has only a few questions beyond name and address, including how many people live in the house, national origin and whether each of the household members works, either part-time, full-time or more than one job.


The Census does not ask whether residents are citizens.


“That is not on there,” Schwaller said.


“Going online is safe and secure, and confidential,” he said. “The information is not made public for 70 years. No one will see what you write down. They are not hard questions and there is nothing confidential.”


By mid-day Wednesday, Ellis County was still maintaining its lead over the state and nation: 44% of Ellis County residents had completed the form; 43.3% in Kansas had, and 38.4% had nationally.


“It’s easy, easy, easy,” Schwaller said.