Every household in America will soon be receiving their 2010 Decennial Census Questionnaire in the mail. Approximately one in every 500 households will also receive a much more detailed set of questions called the American Community Survey. Other people will actually be visited by a pair of census takers. As is usually the case every time the census is conducted, there are people asking themselves why does the government need all this information? Do I have to answer all these questions? Is this information any of their business? Could the government use the information against me in the future?
Americans may well have good reason to be suspicious of increased government information gathering, especially in the post-9/11 era of phone conversation eavesdropping. Government seems to be more engaged in our every day lives than ever before and people are legitimately concerned about potential infringement upon our Constitutionally-protected liberties and rights.
Nonetheless, the short answer to the question “Do I have to respond to the Census?” is “Yes.” You must by law answer the basic questionnaire and the American Community Survey.
The reason for taking the census of the American population every ten years can be found in the US Constitution, Article I, Section 2. “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers… The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.”
The principle purpose of the census is to provide the mathematical basis for apportioning taxes and the number Representatives to Congress each State shall elect. Then why does the Decennial Census need to know how people in my household are related, their gender and race, whether they are of Hispanic origin, and do we own or rent our home? And why is the American Community Survey asking so many detailed questions about things—like how much money I earn—that are nobody’s business? Will the Census Bureau share my personal information with other government agencies or sell my name and number to telemarketers? These are the kind of questions that many Americans are rightfully asking. There are pundits out there who have taken it upon themselves to provide advice regarding the census. Some are saying, if the Constitution only requires a population count, you are only required to answer the population questions and you can ignore the rest.
I hate to burst their bubble, but as the language in the Constitution cited above says, “…as they [Congress] shall by Law direct.” Congress has directed that the answers to certain questions be collected for the purposes of administering programs, responding to emergencies, providing disaster relief, sharing data with state and local governments to help them administer their programs, determining the location of federal facilities, deciding where to build transportation infrastructure such as highways and airports, allocating government services and the funding to geographic areas, and accessing the need and demand for future government services. More to the point, Congress has determined that this information is so important that you are required by law to respond to the Decennial Census in a timely manner and you are required to answer the questions in the American Community Survey, as intrusive as they may be.
Another equally important part of the law regarding the census is that the Census Bureau must keep all of your individual answers confidential. This means they cannot even share your information with other government agencies. Any Census Bureau employee who violates this provision may be subject to a $250,000 fine.
Certainly, one can argue that the gathering of all this information and many of these government programs are not necessary. Much of the information gathered through the American Community Survey is used to administer or develop federal programs that really amount to nothing less than social engineering. I believe many of the current programs are wrongly conceived, do not achieve the purposes for which they were established, and should be abolished.
Regardless of your feelings about government and government programs, let me suggest to you that there are other compelling reasons to respond promptly and accurately to your Decennial Census and the American Community Survey. While your individual responses are protected by law, the cumulative data collected is publicly available. This data is used by many different businesses and industry to determine market share, market potential, where to locate operations or stores, the community with the best potential labor pool when deciding where to build a new manufacturing facility. In short, business requires data—lots of data—to operate profitably, to grow, and to create jobs. Community Developers at your local chamber of commerce or economic development office use census data to recruit new businesses to the area. New businesses use census data to create business plans. Business plans not only increase the likelihood of a new business being successful, but they are now a virtual requirement to getting a bank loan or venture capital for a business start up.
We live in the information age. The U.S. economy is now more service-sector based than manufacturing. While we could debate the causes and merits of that transition, the fact is that our service-sector economy runs on information: population data, age and other demographics, income levels, assets owned or rented, etc. All this information that at first blush appears to be invasive probing on the part of government is what keeps a well oiled economy functioning and growing.
Filling out your Census forms is not just a Constitutional and legal obligation; it is a service to our economy. It is not only your duty as a citizen, but your job or your business may be dependent upon the information people provide through the census process. So, just do it, America! Fill out your Census forms and return them promptly, and if census workers knock on your door, treat them with dignity and respect. They are only doing their job.