Tuesday Tangents: Be Counted! The Census Edition

We received our 2010 Census Form last week, but need to make a few minutes to fill it out. Have you gotten yours yet?

PSAs for the Census tell us to send the form back right away. However, the form itself states that Census Day is officially April 1, 2010, so you should respond by counting the people in your home as of that date. It’s not clear to me whether this is actually a due date, but I’m wondering how they arrived at it. I assume April 15 was out of the running, since it’s Tax Day and we wouldn’t want to overwhelm the government with paperwork from two different sources in one day. My husband pointed out that April 1 is the first day of the second quarter, which may have some significance; it’s also the first day of the second half of the Federal fiscal year, which runs from October 1 to September 30. But the first thing I think of when I consider the date April 1 is that it’s April Fool’s Day. How are they going to be able to rely on numbers reported on April Fool’s Day? They could be totally made up! It seems to me that someone didn’t think this out completely.

But seriously…I’ve heard and read concerns about the Census – that it’s an invasion of privacy, that we don’t know what the information will be used for, that there’s a hidden agenda. It occurs to me that people are increasingly paranoid. The Census has been taken every ten years for a long time (it’s actually established by the Constitution), so it’s not like this is something new to worry about. And we do know what much of the information will be used for – determining the size and number of legislative districts and allocating money for various Federal spending programs are two of the most important uses for Census data. Statistics junkies know that there are also all sorts of interesting demographic profiles created by crunching the Census numbers. Additional demographic goodies will come from responses to the American Community Survey (PDF), which asks more detailed questions about housing, income, education and work as an annual supplement to the Census. (That form goes out to a random sample of households – we didn’t get one.)

If you haven’t gotten your form yet or you’re curious about which questions are asked and why, it’s all explained on the Census website. The form (PDF) has sections to be completed for nine people at a given address (and extra space on the back to add more), and asks the same ten questions for them all. Half the questions have been used for well over a century; sex, age, and race of the respondents have been required for over 200 years. (Interestingly, the early decades of the census asked about race at a time when certain non-white individuals only counted as 3/5 of a person.) Asking for names and telephone numbers is newer, and that may be spurring some of the more recent privacy concerns. However, Social Security numbers are not requested or required.

There’s a question about the respondent’s “Hispanic origin,” which is asked separately from the race question and has been part of the Census since 1970. This will apply to three out of four people in my house; we have a Hispanic last name, but fortunately we didn’t receive a Spanish-language or bilingual form, which would have made getting our information tricky. No one here reads or speaks Spanish; I may be able to muddle through it the best, but I’m the one who is Latina by marriage only, and my Español dates (way) back to high school.

One of the interesting demographic bits that will likely come out of this Census is just how ethnically intermingled this country is now, since respondents are not limited to just one choice for race – it’s a “check all that apply” question. Whether this is progress depends on your perspective – I happen to think it is. I also think it points out that these days, it’s rash to assume anything about anyone – their language, their lifestyle, their food preferences – based on his or her last name. And regardless of the respondent’s reported race and ethnicity, there are no questions addressing legal residency status – basically, if you’re here, you’re here, and they’ll count you.

Are you concerned about responding to the Census at all? At one level, it doesn’t really matter if you have an issue with it – response is legally required anyway, and if your form doesn’t get mailed in, Census workers will come and ask you the questions in person. I’m not bothered by it; I think it creates an interesting snapshot of where the country is at a given point in time. Of course, since that point in time only happens once a decade, there’s a lot left out of that snapshot, but it’s still an interesting one. Hopefully, most people won’t take note of the fact that Census Day is also April Fool’s Day, and that snapshot will be a reasonably accurate one, too.

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