Sara Thompson, KP News

Photo courtesy of U.S. Census Bureau

Every person matters in the official count but Key Peninsula lags in response rate. For every household not counted, the state could lose up to $58,000. 

UPDATE: The Census Bureau reversed itself Aug. 3, after this article went to press, moving the extended deadline for the 2020 census ahead one month from Oct. 31 to Sept 30. Up to 40% of the population has not yet been counted, disproportionately people of color, the disabled, immigrants, and the elderly. The in-person household outreach by enumerators usually counts all but about 1% of the remaining households. It was estimated that with the loss of the additional month up to 10 to 15% will not be counted. The Census Bureau also said the full census report would be completed by Dec. 31 instead of April, as the White House had originally agreed. An accurate census count is needed to determine adequate political representation and federal funding for the next decade. 

The 2020 U.S. Census survey started in March and the response rate from the Key Peninsula is significantly lower than it is in the rest of the Tacoma census area.

While more than two-thirds of households in Pierce County had responded by July 15, the response rate from the three census tracts on the KP was between 43% and 52%.

One explanation may be the way residents receive the survey.

“We mail to where people live, not where they receive their mail,” said Toby Nelson, a Census Bureau spokesman. Residents received surveys if they had mail delivered to their homes and were asked to complete the survey and return it or do it online.

Residents with post office boxes did not receive census forms. Census workers were supposed to deliver forms to their front doors between mid-March and mid-April, but the pandemic disrupted that plan, suspended after only two days with 10% of households reached. 

The operation started again in June and has now been completed. Anyone not receiving the survey can respond online or by phone. The census form included a 12-digit identification number, but that number is not required to complete the survey.

A 1978 law prevents any information identifiable to an individual from being released except to that individual or heir for 72 years.

The pandemic has had a significant impact on timing and deadlines this year, especially for those operations involving in-person field activities. The deadline for self-response was moved from July 31 to Oct 31. The Update Leave operation, which delivered surveys to those households without a physical mailing address, was delayed by two months. Counting the homeless, which involves collecting data through service providers, where people may gather and at other outdoor locations, was rescheduled from late March to mid-September. In-person interviews of non-responders were delayed by three months.

Enumerators, the workers who conduct the interviews, will begin outreach Aug. 11, but Pierce County is one of 12 areas in the country where the process was launched July 23, to test and refine the process. 

According to Nelson, if no one is reached by the enumerators, which is the case in about 1% of all dwellings, a statistical method is used to complete the census. That process could take until the end of the year. The final apportionment count will be delivered April 30, 2021.

The Constitution requires the population to be counted every 10 years. The results affect the number of representatives in Congress and how federal, state and local funds are allocated for hospitals, fire departments, transportation systems, school lunch programs and other critical programs and services. Business owners rely on census results to make decisions, such as where to open new stores, restaurants, factories or offices, and where to expand operations.

According to the Washington State Office of Financial Management, for every 100 households missed in the 2020 count, the state could lose up to $5.8 million.

KP Fire Chief Dustin Morrow said the fire district uses grants to help pay for projects such as the exhaust ventilation systems in the stations and powered lift cots for ambulances. “When we apply and subsequently are awarded these grant funds, a local match is required. The dollar amount of the match is based upon the population served. This information comes from the census,” he said.

The district also needs an accurate population count for planning purposes. They are in the process of creating a comprehensive strategic plan and an emergency response policy. “Both of these processes, once complete, will inform the Board of Fire Commissioners and the public on the short-, mid- and long-term needs of emergency services on the Key Peninsula. Having a clear understanding of our population will again be critical information to have as we complete this work,” Morrow said.

The census also affects school funding.

“An accurate count of the Key Peninsula is important for us as a metric to get an equitable share of our tax dollars back into the community,” said Peninsula School District board member Chuck West. “We have grown so much, and we need services and infrastructure improvements to keep up with the demand. We need to count everyone.”

The census can be completed online at or by phone at 800-330-2020. The deadline is Oct. 31.



The first U.S. Census, in 1790, required delivery via horseback. The data consisted of the name of each head of household, the number of white males, number of free white females, other free persons, and slaves. The population was 3.9 million. The current population is about 330 million, according to the Census Bureau.

More questions were added during the 1800s about age and country of origin. Categories for race were limited to white, black and mulatto. In 1850, free persons were listed individually instead of by family. Slaves were listed as numbers, not names, by owner. In 1870, race categories were expanded to include Chinese, which encompassed all east Asians, and American Indians. Questions were also added about education, literacy, profession and place of birth.

In 1930, the racial classification changed. Whenever a person had any fraction of white ancestry, he or she was to be reported as white. For the first and only time, “Mexican” was listed as a race. In 1940, all households answered 16 questions. A sample of additional households received a long form with questions regarding socioeconomic information. That methodology continued through the 2000 census.

In 1970, for the first time, households were allowed to self-report. Until then, all surveys were collected by enumerators.

In 2010, the census bureau innovated again. All households answered just 10 questions. Rather than survey one household in six for more detailed information via a long form, the Census Bureau used the data collected by the American Community Survey, sent to about 3.5 million people each year since 2005.

The 2020 census questions are identical to those of 2010. The U.S. Supreme Court did not allow adding a question about citizenship. Those opposed to adding the question feared that it would have a negative impact on the willingness of some to complete the census. The court ruled that executive branch officials must “offer genuine justifications for important decisions, reasons that can be scrutinized by courts and the interested public,” and said the explanation offered by the Trump administration for adding the question “appears to have been contrived.”

Gender on the 2020 form is simply male or female and is self-identified. If the household includes a spouse or non-married partner, they are asked to identify as same-sex or opposite-sex. Some LGBTQ advocates want to add additional questions about gender and identity to better identify needed resources.