One, two, three …

Published 9:31 pm Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Census is coming, and government officials want you to stand up and be counted.

“It’s important for everyone to participate because of power and money coming back into the community,” said Patricia Knight, a Virginia partnership specialist with the U.S. Census. “We want to make sure we keep our voice in Congress.”

The census, mandated by the U.S. Constitution, is performed every 10 years. The census aims to count all people living in the United States.

Email newsletter signup

Data collected in the census is used to reapportion seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. The count also is used to help determine how more than $400 billion in federal money is spent annually on things like hospitals, job-training centers, schools, emergency services and transportation.

In addition, the data can help determine where innumerable private dollars should flow, Knight said.

“For community organizations and faith-based organizations, writing grants is all based on the population,” Knight said. “They would not know the demands of the community if they did not have census data.”

Census forms will be mailed to all households in Suffolk in about a week. When residents receive a form, they should fill it out and mail it back in the postage-paid envelope that will come with it.

When the last count was conducted in 2000, only 76 percent of Suffolk residents mailed the form back, according to data on the Census Web site. That means 24 percent of Suffolk residents had to be visited in person by a census worker, which costs the government more money, Knight said. In some areas of Suffolk, the mail-back rate was only 57 percent.

The form asks 10 simple questions about the number of people living in the residence, as well as each person’s name, age, gender and race. It also asks if the residence is owned or rented, and requests a telephone number in case census workers do not understand the answers to any question.

Refusing to participate in the census is punishable by a fine of up to $100. Knowingly providing false information can cost a person $500. However, the Census Bureau hopes to encourage people to participate through education about the census, rather than threatening them with fines, Knight said.

Some people do not like to participate in the count, because they are here illegally or have been in trouble with law enforcement, Knight said.

“People fear the government,” she said. “They fear that if they give us their information we’re going to share it with Social Security or with immigration or law enforcement … People living in public housing may fear if they tell us the number of people living in their apartment, we’re going to share that with their housing manager.”

However, Knight said, that is not the case. Census workers are barred from sharing personal information collected during the census for the rest of their lives, even after they no longer work for the Census Bureau.

“If we share any personal information, we can be fined $250,000 and be in prison for five years,” she said. “It’s a very stiff penalty to uphold.”

Census data is released to the National Archives eventually, but not until 72 years after it is collected. This year’s data will not reach the public until 2082.

The census form will come with instructions on how to fill it out. However, anybody with questions can call 1-617-223-3700, or 1-800-923-8282.