3/11: The Excitement to be Counted: Welcome 2010 Census!

Lots of things happen every ten years…
– Your passport expires
– Tibet’s average annual temperature rises 0.3 degrees
– You ‘re supposed to get a tetanus booster
– The world loses 7% of its topsoil due to human impact
– You have to convince yourself 40 is the new 30, 50 is the new 40, or 60 is the new 50.
– And most excitingly (for me, at least), the United States Census Bureau undertakes the DECENNIAL CENSUS!

mcculloch-caricature-460Mandated by the Constitution and conducted every ten years since 1790, The Decennial Census is a formal count, or enumeration, of the entire United States population.  The vital data is collected by mailing survey forms to all known residential units…and then eagerly awaiting your response…a response that will take less time than needed to make a cup of coffee since the 10 simple questions (such as the number, age, and gender of people living in your home) make this the shortest form in Census history.

My guess is that the 4% of Americans who, in a recent Marist Poll, described their feelings as excited when the census form arrives in their mailbox were survey methodologists, pollsters, and Census employees.  We must have (randomly, of course) called them all!  While eager, enthused, and even energized all capture my emotions, the vast majority of Americans – normal people, in fact – feel obligated, interested, or patriotic…not exactly excited.  But, hey, I’ll take it – at least nearly nine out of ten Americans report they are likely to complete this year’s form.

So, why do I think this is exciting, you might ask?  Why do I think it’s critical that, in the wake of an economic crisis, our government spends close to $15 billion dollars on the decennial Census…and over $2 million dollars pumping up Americans for this count with a Super Bowl commercial?  For me, the answer is two-fold: (1) I love all things ‘survey’…their design, purpose, and utility; and (2) the accuracy of my job relies, to some degree, on the accuracy of the Census.   But, the two major reasons noted by the Census Bureau are:

1.    Census counts are used by Congress to determine how many seats your state will have in the U.S. House of Representatives.
2.    Federal, state, and local government use census information to allocate over $400 billion in federal funds for community programs, services, and infrastructure (such as schools, hospitals, roads, and job preparation services).

The 2000 Census undercounted the actual population of the United States by over 6 million people.  While some of that undercount is due to difficulty in locating some housing units, a significant proportion is due to Americans simply not completing the form.  Many are concerned and suspicious about disclosing information to the bureau but rest assured, the government goes to great lengths to protect our confidentiality and privacy.  Personal data is not shared with anyone – including other federal agencies.

And think about it…6 million people is a lot of people…and a lot of time, resources, and money that your own community may have been short-changed because our government had no way of knowing its needs based on the population.   In fact, according to a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers after the 2000 Census, thirty-one states potentially lost a total of over $4 billion (for programs and services meeting the needs of the poor, children, and minorities) due to the undercount.

So, when your census form arrives in your mailbox in just about a week, you may want to think twice before tossing it aside.   Forget that the census is required by law and that it could cost you a $250 fine if you don’t complete it.   Not filling it out could, ultimately, hit you and your community where it hurts – in your wallet.  Just remember what we tell our Marist Poll interviewers: “Everyone’s participation is truly important!”