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Ignoring Your Census Form Is a Pretty Costly Decision

An 1870 illustration from Harper's Weekly shows a census taker at work. Census 2010 will help determine how more than $400 billion is allocated.
An 1870 illustration from Harper's Weekly shows a census taker at work. Census 2010 will help determine how more than $400 billion is allocated. (Library Of Congress)
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By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, August 30, 2009

My grandmother, Big Mama, was fearful of divulging much if any of her personal information to the government.

And she had plenty of reasons. A granddaughter of slaves, she was reluctant to cooperate with a government that once permitted the wretched condition of human bondage.

It's Big Mama I think about when I hear Commerce Secretary Gary Locke plead with people to send back the 2010 Census forms that will be mailed next March to more than 130 million households -- not only in all 50 states and the District of Columbia but Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Every 10 years, the Census Bureau is required by the Constitution to count all the people living in the United States.

I'm not sure, but I'm willing to bet that when the federal government sent census forms to Big Mama, she tossed them in the trash. Heck, she wouldn't even fill out my college financial aid applications for fear the government would use the information to somehow take her house.

I understand that many people, like Big Mama, don't trust the federal government. I'm also aware it is illegal for the Census Bureau to share personal information with any other government agency, including law enforcement.

But for those who are still inclined to ignore the decennial count for whatever personal reason or history or preposterous political agenda (yes, I'm talking to you, Rep. Michele Bachmann -- the Minnesota Republican has threatened not to completely fill out her census form), I want to appeal to your pocketbook.

Once counted, the census data will determine how more than $400 billion a year in federal funding is allocated. How much money your community gets is in your hands. The census is about power, but equally important, it's about money.

"At a time when states are struggling, $400 billion is very critical to providing the services that people want, whether it's for senior services, public health, or police and fire," Locke said during an interview. "It's in people's own economic self-interest to maximize the funds coming to their communities."

There's a lot of focus on the political impact of the 2010 count. After all, the count will determine how many congressional representatives each state will have. The information is used to draw legislative districts.

"That's especially important because in 2011 many states will be redistricting, and according to private analysts as many as six states are on the cusp of gaining a congressional seat," Locke said in a speech at the National Association of Black Journalists' convention in Tampa in early August.

Census results are also crucial to many local planning decisions -- such as those involving neighborhood improvements, emergency preparedness and disaster recovery, Locke said.

With so many people disillusioned with the political process, the Census Bureau may have a better chance of boosting responses by playing up the economics of the count.


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© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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