The 2020 U.S. Census is upon us. One word needs to be said before the count begins: Beware.

This is not to mean that you should beware of the Census itself. It is one of the most important actions the federal government undertakes every 10 years because of the many factors hanging in the balance of our being counted.

Mississippi is believed to have a population of slightly less than 3 million people. Estimates show it could rise to 3.15 million with a complete count this year.

If someone knocks at your door and pronounces to be a Census-taker, do all you can to make sure that they are who they say they are. I painfully learned that lesson in recent weeks when someone at our door in rural Georgia claimed to be a Census worker, but apparently was not because the count had not even started in our county.

Various community groups contract with the government to conduct the Census. They are led by individuals with the best interests of you, the state and the locale at heart. Former Gov. Phil Bryant last year appointed former state Sen. Giles Ward of Louisville as chair of Mississippi’s Census effort.

Much of this work will be conducted online for the first time; thus a goodly portion of the population might never actually see a worker. In many of Mississippi’s deeply rural counties, however, a lot of door-to-door, face-to-face contact will still be required because many of our fellow citizens do not have a computer or the knowledge required to be counted. Some telephone and on-paper registration will also occur.

Another word of caution: Don’t ever give anyone your Social Security or bank account numbers, even to real Census takers. It’s also against the law for the Census Bureau to share your information with law agencies or immigration authorities, and it cannot be used to determine your eligibility for government benefits.

Many counties across the state fear that a big portion of black and Hispanic citizens will go uncounted this year. In fact, there are numerous examples that these groups in some rural counties were undercounted in the 2010 Census by upwards of 50 percent.

Let there be no doubt that Mississippi’s Hispanic population has ballooned in the last decade, but due to the fear of federal immigration raids on both legal and illegal immigrants, many of these residents are not expected to respond to Census takers.

Why does the Census matter? For starters, being counted means more federal dollars flowing to the state for such programs as Medicaid, SNAP and WIC, school lunches, Special Education and Head Start, foster care and housing assistance.

The Census also affects the number of members of the House of Representatives assigned to each state. Congress is reapportioned based on the count in each state. Mississippi lost one member after the 2000 Census. It could happen again with bursts of population in other states.

A collaborative effort between Mississippi State University’s Social Science Center and the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation is under way to inform the public about the importance of the headcount.

“We want people to realize that the upcoming Census is a big opportunity to sustain or increase our current levels of funding for some very important programs,” said Dr. Heather Hanna of MSU, co-chair of the project. “Basic programs for our children … are all dependent on Census counts.”

Obviously, there is much at stake for Mississippi in the upcoming Census,  not the least of which is an improved quality-of-life for all. Please be counted.

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