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Questions and Answers About the Census…

WASHINGTON - Every 10 years, the federal government counts the number of people living in the U.S., as required by the Constitution. Various groups get involved to try to make sure the count is fair and accurate. Other groups, even elected officials, criticize it.

Question: Why does our government do this (other than it being the law)?

Answer: The main reason is to divvy up the 435 seats in the House of Representatives among the states. Population shifts over time, and a count every 10 years helps make sure each state is fairly represented. Your state's population in the 2010 census will determine if it gains, loses or keeps House seats. A larger House delegation can mean more clout.

Q: What's in this for me, besides maybe losing or gaining a member of Congress?

A: The census determines how more than $400 billion in federal funding goes to states for highways, schools, senior citizen programs and much more. Much of this money is distributed based on formulas that include population. For example, while your local tax dollars help pay for many school projects, federal dollars also finance education programs. In 2007, the Department of Education distributed $10 billion in federal funding to states for special education grants based on census data, according to the Brookings Institution.

Q: Does the census do anything else for me?

A: It provides data that businesses and communities use for decision-making. Companies often rely on census data, such as how many people are in a certain age range in a community, to determine where to build a supermarket or open a restaurant. Governments use the data to determine where schools, roads and other services may be needed.

Q: Who has access to this information? Is it public?

A: Your personal information is not shared with anyone, that includes any federal, state or local agency or law enforcement agency. It does become public 72 years after a census. So your information will be in the National Archives in 2082.

Q: Does the Census Bureau just mail out the forms and wait to get them mailed back?

A: It takes a lot more effort than that. Early last year, about 140,000 census workers canvassed neighborhoods throughout the country to verify addresses. The Census Bureau will mail questionnaires to more than 130 million households this month. In some places, including areas in the Gulf Coast hard hit by the 2005 hurricanes, questionnaires will be hand delivered.

The official count kicks off April 1.Those who don't respond may get a visit from a census worker. Thousands of workers will knock on doors between May and July to urge people to fill out the forms.

Meanwhile, the Census Bureau has opened 12 regional offices and 500 local centers. And across the country, census officials have teamed with local groups, businesses, schools and churches to get the word out about the upcoming count.

Q: Why do they need to do all this outreach?

A: Census officials aim to count everyone living here. But they are making a special effort to reach groups that historically have been undercounted: poor people, residents who don't speak English well, children and minorities, including blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans. Some people will be difficult to count because hard economic times have forced them to move around and stay with friends and relatives. In some cases, people don't trust the government and are afraid to fill out the questionnaire. Language barriers also can be a problem.

Q: Does the Census Bureau count people living in the country illegally?

A: The Census Bureau doesn't ask about anyone's legal status. Some have fought to add that question to the census form. They argue that people in the country illegally shouldn't be counted because census numbers are used to determine House seats, and illegal immigrants aren't allowed to vote. Immigrant advocacy groups say everyone living in the country - no matter their legal status - should be counted because local and state governments use those figures to determine services needed in schools and communities.

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