Return your census form

Our view: Responding to the decennial survey saves the government lots of money

March 18, 2010

Looking for a way to keep Washington from spending so much? The power is in your hands this month, with an opportunity you won't get again for another decade.

This week, 2010 Census forms began arriving in mailboxes across the country. If you fill it out and send it back in, it will cost the government 42 cents for a stamp. If you don't, the government will send someone to your door, and that costs an average of $57 for every response. The Census Bureau estimates that each percentage point increase in the mail response rate to the census saves $85 million. In 2000, about 72 percent of Americans (and 73 percent of Marylanders) mailed back their forms; if everyone did it this time, the government would save $1.5 billion.

The government goes to such great lengths to conduct the census because it's required in the Constitution. The information the government collects on who lives where is the basis for the apportionment of congressional seats among the states, and within states it is used to draw district lines for federal, state and local elected offices. An accurate count attempts to ensure that every person is given equal representation in their government.

Based on the population estimates the Census Bureau conducts between its actual counts, it doesn't look likely that Maryland will gain or lose any seats in Congress -- or votes in the Electoral College. But Pennsylvania is on the bubble to lose another seat after the two it shed following the 2000 census. The data collected by the Census Bureau are also used to allocate about $400 billion a year in federal aid for education, transportation, health care and other services. An accurate count makes sure the money goes to where it's actually needed.

In spite of the fact that the census has been conducted dozens of times over our nation's history and has so clearly benign a purpose, it is perennially greeted with suspicion, even hostility, by some. The list of frequently asked questions on the 2010 Census Web site hints at this. The first is about why the Census Bureau bought an ad during the Super Bowl (the agency wanted to reach the largest possible audience, CBS offered a good deal, and the Super Bowl is perhaps the only show on television in which people make a point of watching the ads). Other questions focus on whether the bureau hires criminals to conduct its counts (no), why it counts illegal immigrants (it always has) and whether the government will sell respondents' personal information (it's prohibited by law from sharing such data).

But this year's census should seem less intrusive. In recent censuses, the bureau sent two different forms to households. Most got a short form, asking basic information about the number of people in the household, their age, race and sex. But a sampling of people got a long form that asked dozens of questions about income, citizenship status, educational attainment, even the number of rooms in your house. Some people found that nosy and had a hard time seeing why it was necessary.

This time, the Census Bureau has done away with that. Those questions are now handled in annual surveys. Everyone will get a short form this year with just 10 questions, not all that different from the six that were part of the original census in 1790.

It's simple, it's crucial for the operation of our political system, it ensures that government funds are spent where they're needed, and mailing back the form saves the taxpayers a bundle of money. There aren't many times when you can do something so important with so little effort.

Readers respond

Just completed my census form. Easy enough. For all the paranoid people out there: Use water to seal your envelope. If you lick the envelope, Big Brother might get a DNA sample from you ... Just kidding ... or not.

Rob

The results are supposed to determine how many representatives we have in the House? And the illegals, diplomats and international workers that will be counted are supposed to help project that how?

R. Taylor

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