Outside editorial: Why the census is worth your time

Posted: Thursday, March 11, 2010

The following editorial appeared in the Dallas Morning News:

We cringed a few weeks ago when we heard Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., briefly call for a boycott of the 2010 census, which she apparently thought would ask too many nosy questions yet not ask about U.S. citizenship or resident status.

She's recanted the boycott call, but her misinformation is representative of the many myths about the census. Immigrant and other so-called hard-to-count communities too often view the process with conspiratorial skepticism, while others, like Bachmann, have an ideological aversion to the government asking questions.

So when you get the census form in the mail this month, don't ignore it. Fill it out and return it so that you - and your community - can be counted.

Myth 1: It's not a very accurate count

The last canvass in 2000, considered the best to date, scored a 98 percent accuracy rate. Nothing is 100 percent; census officials estimate that they missed about 6.4 million Americans, including about 373,000 people in Texas. That number includes mostly low-income households, minorities and children under 18. It's up to each person who receives the questionnaire to make sure the count is as accurate as possible.

Myth 2: It's such an invasion of privacy

It's a federal crime to disclose or publish private information. Not even the White House, the Internal Revenue Service, law enforcement, other agencies or journalists' Freedom of Information requests can secure private census information.

Myth 3: The detail sought is excessive

Actually, the form asks 10 questions, among the shortest queries since the first national count in 1790, which posed six questions. The 2010 form is limited to name, age, date of birth, gender, race, ethnicity, household members' relationships, whether you own or rent, and a telephone number. There are no questions about income, the number of cars you own or even whether you are an American citizen. (For the first time since 1940, there will be no "long form" questionnaire sent out to a subset of households.)

Myth 4: There are so many censuses

Scammers and political parties often take advantage of this once-a-decade count to ask other questions in census-like documents designed to solicit personal or other information. Don't be fooled. The real census doesn't ask for a Social Security number or for your political leanings. And if you get an inquiry online, rest assured that it's a scam.

Myth 5: It doesn't matter

Yes, it does. And the Constitution requires it to determine the number of seats each state has in the House of Representatives. Texas is expected to pick up several congressional seats, reflecting its population growth. Moreover, the national count is used to distribute more than $400 billion annually to communities for such things as employment training, low-income home-energy assistance, Medicaid grants, housing, substance abuse treatment and unemployment insurance.

If you don't get yourself into the count, you cheat yourself and your community.



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