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How Much Information Do You Have to Give the Census?

Failure to complete form means follow-up visits, potential fines

When Rockingham County resident Eric Smith found the 2010 U.S. Census waiting for him in the mailbox, he immediately went in the house and filled it out.

However, this North Carolinian — one of more than 4 million in the state to receive the government form — answered only one of the 10 questions on the form before returning it.

“I’m gladly doing my part, but I am a strict constitutionalist,” he said. “The only question I filled out is how many people live in my household. That’s the only one I’m constitutionally required to answer. The other questions invade my privacy. They don’t need to know the names of my family members, our date of birth, our gender or race. None of the rest is any of their business. That’s how I feel.”

He’s not alone.

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., refused to fill out her own form because she felt the U.S. Census has been used to earmark minority groups for special reasons, including information that led to the Japanese internment during World War II.

Several conservative and Hispanic advocacy groups have urged members to refuse to complete their forms, or have called for an all-out boycott of the count, citing privacy and confidentiality issues as a reason to object. Some groups have started a campaign urging residents to answer “American” in the line indicating race.

Such concerns aren’t new. But individuals who try to duck the census — or willfully provide inaccurate information — are in legal jeopardy. It is mandatory for every U.S. citizen to complete the 2010 U.S. Census, said Census Bureau spokeswoman B.J. Welborn.

“Every household is required to answer all 10 questions, according to Title 13 of the U.S. Code,” she said. “Those who turn in incomplete forms will either get a follow up by a U.S. census taker or a phone call.”

Fines for returning incomplete forms

Hans von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., agrees that every question must be answered. “The case law says you can be fined $100 per question for not giving an answer,” he said. “No citizen has successfully defended a case in which they claimed that particular questions were too intrusive and beyond the authority of Congress to authorize.”

Individuals do not, however, have to allow a census taker into their homes, he said.

Although von Spakovsky said there is an “obsession with race” on the 2010 U.S Census Form, he said the United States Code states that government officials cannot make available to the public any data that be used to identify specific individuals. “The data can only be used for statistical purposes,” he said.

Sunshine Hillygus, associate professor of political science at Duke University and co-author of The Hard Count: The Political and Social Challenges of Census Mobilization, said these concerns have surrounded the U.S. Census, from the first taken in 1790 until the present.

“Some people think the census has no right to ask for additional information,” she said. “They feel it is too intrusive.”
Hillygus said some people may be afraid to complete the form, such as illegal immigrants, those who haven’t paid their taxes, or those who have committed crimes. Still, she said the U.S. Census Bureau maintains a level of confidentiality that is higher than any other branch or form of government.

She said the worst thing a person can do is completely boycott the census.

“Endorsing a boycott of the census is illegal and I think one of the unfortunate things is people feel they have the right not to fill out the census form,” Hillygus said. “It’s irresponsible to call on people to not fill out the census because it’s in nobody’s best interest to not have an accurate census count. I think that you see supporters on both sides of the aisle that have expressed the need to get an accurate count. Everyone needs to fill it out for quality control and to get the most accurate population count possible in this country.”

Census spokeswoman Welborn said the questionnaire must be filled out correctly and then mailed back in the pre-addressed, postage-paid envelope provided. In addition to the $100 fine for noncompliance, there’s a $500 fine for willfully providing false information, although the law is rarely enforced.

“The form cannot be filled out online,” she said. “You need to fill out the form by the mid-April deadline, but the sooner you get it in, the better. We urge people to fill it out and send it back immediately; otherwise a census taker will come to your home.”

Residents can verify census takers’ ID

She said it is important to note that census takers will not start making their door-to-door rounds or phone calls until the beginning of May. Each census taker will have an official I.D. badge from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Commerce. Welborn said residents can verify a census taker’s identification by calling the local office of the Census Bureau.

Gov. Beverly Purdue’s Census Liaison Bob Coats said the 2010 U.S. Census is vital to the balance of power in Washington, D.C., as it determines how much of the $470 billion in federal spending is parceled out to states for services.

“The census helps the government plan for roads, community hospitals, and job training and community development grants,” he said. “That’s important for North Carolina because we continue to grow rapidly and the census is a foundation for funding formulas. The impact will be felt for the next 10 years.”

Welborn warned that all U.S. residents should be on the lookout for phishing scams during the census year. “We do not ask for financial information in the 2010 Census,” she said. “It should be a tip-off that it is a scam if a person asks for your Social Security or [bank] account numbers. We never ask for these things and you should never give them out.”

Karen Welsh is a contributor to Carolina Journal.