ON THE FRONT PAGE of one of those pamphlets being distributed by the Census Bureau is a phrase written by Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the NAACP: "It is the constitutional right of everyone to be counted. . . ."
Most people don't think of the decennial census that way. Being counted -- filling out those forms that will arrive in the next few days -- is an obligation and a bother. Some people consider it unnecessary prying by the federal government, a threat to personal privacy.
But being counted next Tuesday is a "right" and an extremely important one. That's because much of what government and private business will do during the next 10 years will depend on the final numbers that emerge from the Census Bureau. The location of seats in Congress and in other legislative bodies, the allocation of funds by federal and state governments to dozens of programs from highway building to aid for the elderly, and even the location of such things as stores and factories will depend on how many residents live where. The community in which every uncounted person lives will get a little less of almost everything it is entitled to for the next decade.
The importance of being counted applies to everyone, not just voters or citizens. The goal of the census is to determine how many people -- adults and children, citizens and aliens -- live in each community on April 1. The dispute over counting illegal aliens has been resolved in favor of the Census Bureau's plan to count them; and they, like all the rest of us, have been guaranteed confidentiality of the answers they provide.
This is quite different from the first census, conducted 190 years ago on Aug. 2, when the enumerators were required to post the returns in every community "at two of the most public places . . . for the inspection of all concerned." But the object is the same. The requirement for a census every 10 years was written into the Constitution so that a proper determination could be made of the votes each state would have in the House of Representatives. That determination still rides on the census -- about 14 seats will move from one state to another next year -- but so do many other things. Get counted next Tuesday.