Opinion: 2020 Census is good for you and your community

Ronald Wasserstein

The U.S Census is underway. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham personally delivered the first 2020 Census questionnaire last week to a house in Toksook Bay, an Alaska Native fishing village on a Bering Sea island.

FILE - In this Aug. 13, 2019, file photo a worker gets ready to pass out instructions in how fill out the 2020 census during a town hall meeting in Lithonia, Ga.

As remote and tiny as this frozen village is, its inhabitants are as important to the Census as the millions of people who call Detroit, New York, Phoenix or Los Angeles home. And you are important, too. 

Your family’s questionnaire will arrive soon — online, by phone or by mail — and your neighbors and fellow citizens are counting on you to fill it out.

It is reasonable to ask what the government will do with the data it collects, and whether it will be kept secure and confidential. It’s also reasonable to ask why you should spend your valuable time filling out a form.

Some people will attempt to stoke fear around the Census, claiming the government can use the data to track you personally, give your personal information to police or immigration authorities, and even turn you over to the IRS. All of this is patently false. 

Your census form is confidential and protected heavily by federal law — namely, Title 13 of the U.S. Code. A government official who breaks this confidentiality protection faces serious penalties, including imprisonment.

What’s more, although last year the Trump administration asked the Census Bureau to add a question about citizenship, a host of citizen groups, plus New York and California, quickly sued to exclude the question. In June the Supreme Court barred any such question from the Census.

There have, over the course of U.S. history, been a few cases where the government behaved badly and used Census numbers improperly. The most glaring instance occurred during World War II, when the government used Census maps to identify areas with large populations of Americans of Japanese descent. The federal government long ago admitted its error and Congress has passed tough laws to ensure that such an abuse can no longer occur.

The Census, rather than a cause for concern, should instead be regarded as a benefit for you and your community. Failing to complete the Census risks losing some of those benefits.

First, the U.S Census is a constitutional imperative and a civic duty. The U.S. Constitution requires the government to undertake a census of the population every 10 years. The government uses this count to determine the number of seats each state holds in the House of Representatives. An undercount in your area might mean the loss of representation in Congress.

Second, the government will use the data to allocate $1.5 trillion in federal funds to states and cities across the United States every year for the next 10 years. That’s more than Michigan’s entire GDP. 

If your area isn’t fully counted, local programs that depend on federal dollars may not receive full funding they need. Michiganians deserve their fair slice of the pie, and so does your community. 

Third, local politicians and community leaders rely on the data to select locations for businesses and community centers, map out police precincts and fire stations, and even determine how many ambulances an area may need. When you respond to the Census, your answers help make sure your leaders account for you and your family in this planning.

The Census ensures that your state, your community and your family get to share in the benefits of living in the U.S. 

Completing the Census means that you count.

Ronald Wasserstein is the executive director of the American Statistical Association.