April 6, 2010 | Burlington Free Press | Original Article

My Turn: 10 things to know about the 2010 Census

The 2010 Census is under way.

On a daily basis, residents across the country are embracing their civic and Constitutional mandated duty by completing their questionnaire and being counted in the census. As of April 1, more than 50 percent of the 120 million households that received the questionnaire have mailed it back. But we are only halfway there. To ensure a complete count of the people living in this nation, we ask you to fill out your Census questionnaire in the privacy of your home, and to mail it back.

While the Census Bureau has the responsibility for conducting the census, a successful count requires that every resident understand they are a crucial part of the process. At its core, the 2010 Census is really a local phenomenon, and we need every neighborhood, community organization and individual to embrace the census as their individual responsibility. So, here are my top 10 points that everyone should know about the 2010 Census:

1. The decennial census is mandated in the U.S. Constitution -- It requires that every person living in the United States be counted once, only once, and at the right place. Congress delegates this responsibility to the Secretary of Commerce, who in turn delegates it to the Census Bureau.

2. Census figures determine the fair allocation of federal funds and political representation -- Census data affect your voice in Congress by determining how many seats each state will have in the U.S. House of Representatives. In addition, every year more than $400 billion in federal funds is awarded to states, local governments and communities based on census data. There are many programs that depend on census data such as Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers; the National School Lunch Program; Head Start; State Children's Health Insurance Program; Women, Infants, and Children program; foster care; and the School Breakfast Program, among others.

3. Answering the Census is safe. The Patriot Act does not override Census confidentiality provisions -- Every Census Bureau employee must pass a background check before being hired and must swear under a lifetime oath to protect the confidentiality of census responses. Any employee who discloses any personal census information is subjected to severe penalties -- including a fine of up to $250,000, imprisonment of up to five years, or both. By law, no other government agency, law enforcement agency, national security agency, court, or anyone else can access your responses. No law, not even the Patriot Act, overrides the confidentiality law that protects personal information collected by the Census Bureau, or can force the Bureau to share census responses. The Department of Justice recently confirmed that no provision of the Patriot Act overrides the confidentiality provisions of the census.

4. You can help reduce the overall cost if you complete and mail back the form -- Every percentage point increase in the mail return rate saves about $85 million in taxpayer money. While the cost to the census for mailing back each form is just 42 cents, it costs $57 for follow up with each non-responding household. The Census Bureau will be able to return hundreds of millions of dollars to the taxpayers if all of the forms came back completed. After the 2000 Census we returned to the Treasury some $305 million in savings. Then Secretary of Commerce Don Evans testified in 2001 to the U.S. Senate that those savings came about from our advertising, promotion and PR efforts encouraging households to mail back their forms, increasing response rates over the prior census for the first time in three decades.


5. The 2010 Census questionnaire is nonintrusive and easy -- We ask each household member for name, age, ethnicity, race, relationship to the owner/renter of the home, and whether the person sometimes lives elsewhere. We're asking 10 questions that take 10 minutes once every 10 years -- not too much of a burden.

6. Each Census has counted all residents where they usually live -- Since the early 1900s, when large numbers of immigrants landed in our country, citizens and noncitizens alike are counted. College students are counted in their dormitories, and prisoners are counted at the jails. People with two homes are counted where they usually live. The homeless are counted where they are found. Military and federal government employees stationed outside the U.S. are counted in their home states. Other Americans living abroad are not included.

7. Congress has passed many laws that depend on census data -- Over the years, Congress has passed the Voting Rights Act, the Age Discrimination and Employment Act, the National Affordable Housing Act, the Veterans' Benefit Program, to name just several laws, and each of these specifically call for census data for implementation.

8. Some groups tend to be undercounted and some overcounted -- The poor, the less educated, young men with ties to multiple households, young children of divorced parents and new immigrant groups tend to be more difficult to enumerate. People with multiple homes, college students and older people tend to be overcounted. Despite these difficulties, our goal is to count everyone once, and only once, and in the right place.

9. Hundreds of thousands of partners across the country help promote the Census -- We have more than 10,000 volunteer partner organizations in diverse communities in our Region that help get the word out that the census is easy, important and safe. Mayors and city councils have appointed "complete count committees," and community groups are forming language assistance centers.

10. Law mandates completing the census, but we reach out to you -- Fines up to $5,000 are possible for not filling out a census form, however, the Census Bureau is not in the business of prosecution. If a household fails to return a census form, an enumerator will visit.

In closing, please remember that the census is easy, important and safe, and your participation is vital. Together, we will paint a new portrait of America.
Kathleen Ludgate is Boston regional director of the U.S. Census Bureau.