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How you can help the census

FINGER LAKES—Less painful than income tax but just as necessary, a form for the U.S. 2010 Census will be mailed out to every household in the nation mid-March. Its 10 questions should take no more than 10 minutes of time to fill out and a postage-paid return envelope should make returning it easy.
This is the 23rd decennial (every 10 years) Federal Census since 1790, when it was enacted into law, “That each and every person more than sixteen years of age, whether heads of families or not, belonging to any Family within any division of a district made or established within the United States, shall be, and hereby is, obliged to render to such assistant of the division, a true account, if required, to the best of his or her knowledge, of all and every person belonging to such family respectively, according to the several descriptions aforesaid, on pain of forfeiting twenty dollars…”
Meaning, then, as now, it was illegal to fail to respond.
“We’re urging compliance rather than penalties,” says a representative of the Census Bureau. “We’re in the business of encouraging participation.” Every one percent increase in the speedy return of census forms saves the government 80 to 90 million dollars, he adds.
Expecting a quick response, the government sends a reminder postcard late in March, a replacement form for those not returned by early April; then institutes “non-response follow-up” procedures including sending an enumerator to one’s home to collect data. The fine for non-compliance with the Census has risen from the $20 in 1790 to $5,000—which, when the numbers are adjusted for inflation, may be of relatively equivalent value, the Census representative said.
It’s intended to be simple and easy enough that there’s no reason not to respond.
In brief, one person in the household is asked to count the number of people who live and sleep under their roof most of the time. This does not include students away at school, inmates of nursing homes or prisons, or people serving in the armed forces. Those in the U.S. are counted at the address where they reside—be it college dorm or institutional care. Your household census does include children, newborn babies, foster children, non-relatives living with you and long-term guests. It asks for each person’s name, gender, age, ethnicity—more than one choice may be checked off per individual if appropriate- and also asks about the relationship between individuals living together in the same household. There’s also a question concerning whether the home is owned, mortgaged or rented,
“People give much more information to people they don’t even know,” said another Census representative. “This impacts your representation in government.”
“The data are used on an aggregate level,” explains Victoria Ehlen, a planner with the Southern Tier Central Regional Planning and Development Board. “Identifying information is never made available, as is required by the Constitution. The Census is like a photo, a snapshot in time.”
Since 2005, more in-depth information is collected from a random sampling of households—about 2.5 percent in a community per year, through the American Community Survey, an arm of the Census Bureau. This, essentially the previous Census long-form, taken together with the nationwide survey, which is more like a snapshot, allows planners to look more continuously at each region’s socio-economic data, to identify trends and community needs.
“One of the things we run across is the aging population,” Ehlen notes. “We’ll be able to identify the rate of aging, the number of people over 65 and estimated movement patterns so communities can care for the needs of their residents.”
Additionally, once the census results are compiled, federal and state legislative districts will be redrawn. “New York State population is not growing as fast as other states, and we could lose a congressional seat,” she says.
David Zorn, executive director of the Genesee Finger Lakes Regional Planning Council, says the data, when compiled, will be available to the public on the Census Bureau’s website. “We use it in a myriad of ways,” he said. “It’s trends, population data, many many things.” Unwilling to make projects on what he expects the data will tell him, he cautions, “First we’re going to look at the numbers, and base decisions on what they’re telling us.”

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