Why is The Census Mandatory?

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Written by: Director Robert Groves

“SEC. 6. And be it further enacted, 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, to be sued for and recovered by such assistant, the one half for his own use, and the other half for the use of the United States.” See the Census Act of 1790.

The above is the section of the very first Census Act, passed in March of 1790, that specifies a fine of $20 for every person of 16 years or older who does not provide a “true account” of all persons in their family. Ever since that first census, US law has specified such fines for persons who did not participate in the decennial census.

Why did the Congress of 1790 (which then contained some of the signers of the US Constitution) make the census mandatory? Why has all subsequent legislation renewed this stance?

The original rationale may be lost in history (please send in comments if you know otherwise) but looking back now it’s consistent with other laws seeking to protect the common good. If persons in the fledgling republic didn’t participate in the census, then their actions indirectly hurt their neighbors, by depriving them of equal representation in the House of Representatives. (The counts of their areas would be lower than actual.) We have other laws like that – speed limits for drivers, selective service registration for young men, and school attendance for children, for example. Thus, the common good value of representatives proportionally distributed by population was thought to outweigh the individual burden of census.

It’s interesting to note that the census taker (above called the “assistant” to the US marshal taking the census) was provided half of the fine and the rest went to the government. The $20 fine in 1790 would be equivalent to about $500 (using a CPI inflator), but the current fine is only $100. In fact, the Census Bureau has rarely prosecuted failure to respond. While the rationale for the mandatory nature of the census still applies today, our message for the 2010 Census is about the common good benefits of participation.

At this point, the Federal government has other such mandatory data collections, although almost all of them are surveys of businesses, to ensure that key economic indicators used to track the economy are accurately measured. Here, the rationale is similar, complete measurement of the sample establishments yields accurate national estimates of how the economy is fairing. The burden borne by the sample establishments yields enormous common good value for the entire society.

America is proudly the land of liberty and freedom, but the founding fathers knew we each also needed to give up a little every once in awhile when important common good outcomes could be achieved.

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34 Responses to Why is The Census Mandatory?

  1. Maher A> Shakhtur says:

    If people just knew how important/escential is to participate in the planing and execution of programs as diverse as education in all institutions , as well as moral education,at homes and churches of all diversities and how that implements the direction in wich a certain part of the world is moving/evolving and growing… as important as health issues as far as healthy or unhealthy societies as prescribed by the International Health Organization, OMS and other national and international statistics that help to provide with the needed help and to compile the acurrate information in a timely manner so the proper resources can be directed in the direction that will be of benefit for the human kind in helping and inspirring good social behaveiour for a better way of life for our deteriorating human life and the world wich we all share.
    May be then will be a better spirit of cooperation even thou if the information may be somwhat different of what we would like it to be… the world has become for way to long a place of trial and errors, some more significants than others.
    Is the real thing that will help us all move in a better direction, and that is by taking charge of our destinies aacepting the realities as they are and growing wiser. Amen

  2. Maher A> Shakhtur says:

    If people just knew how important/escential is to participate in the planing and execution of programs as diverse as education in all institutions , as well as moral education,at homes and churches of all diversities and how that implements the direction in wich a certain part of the world is moving/evolving and growing… as important as health issues as far as healthy or unhealthy societies as prescribed by the International Health Organization, OMS and other national and international statistics that help to provide with the needed help and to compile the acurrate information in a timely manner so the proper resources can be directed in the direction that will be of benefit for the human kind in helping and inspirring good social behaveiour for a better way of life for our deteriorating human life and the world wich we all share.
    May be then will be a better spirit of cooperation even thou if the information may be somwhat different of what we would like it to be… the world has become for way to long a place of trial and errors, some more significants than others.
    Is the real thing that will help us all move in a better direction, and that is by taking charge of our destinies aacepting the realities as they are and growing wiser. Amen

  3. Maher A> Shakhtur says:

    If people just knew how important/escential is to participate in the planing and execution of programs as diverse as education in all institutions , as well as moral education,at homes and churches of all diversities and how that implements the direction in wich a certain part of the world is moving/evolving and growing… as important as health issues as far as healthy or unhealthy societies as prescribed by the International Health Organization, OMS and other national and international statistics that help to provide with the needed help and to compile the acurrate information in a timely manner so the proper resources can be directed in the direction that will be of benefit for the human kind in helping and inspirring good social behaveiour for a better way of life for our deteriorating human life and the world wich we all share.
    May be then will be a better spirit of cooperation even thou if the information may be somwhat different of what we would like it to be… the world has become for way to long a place of trial and errors, some more significants than others.
    Is the real thing that will help us all move in a better direction, and that is by taking charge of our destinies aacepting the realities as they are and growing wiser. Amen

  4. Red says:

    WOW! It’s 2010 and your agency is not set up for online census? Really? Imagine how much faster you would have results. For the 35 and under crowd it would be very nice to have the ability to do it online, from smart phone or similar divices. Please stop wasting paper and get with the times.

  5. Peggy L says:

    Red,
    I think the technology needs to be available without fail to ensure that there is only one questionnaire submitted per household, and that the data is totally secure, before the Census can go online. Phishing, hackers and worms are very real threats. It’s not a matter of being behind the times, it’s a matter of absolute security and accuracy. Technology is advancing so quickly that there are frequent backtracks to plug holes. That won’t work in the domain of the Census.
    In addition, unfortunately there is no shortage of special-interest groups who would likely attempt to manipulate Census data if they had the opportunity.
    FYI – I am in the “40 and over crowd” and I rely on technology just as much as the “35 and under” folks.

  6. Andrew Fong says:

    @Red I think equality is one of the key issues here. An online census would disproportionately benefit areas with lots of people 35 and under (California, Colarado) and hurt those with older people (Florida) — but maybe you could argue that older folks are more likely to fill out a pencil and paper survey than younger people and it all balances out. I’d love to see the stats on that.
    The other issues with an online census might be fraud and privacy. I’m sure you could design a system in such a way to keep abuse of the system relatively low though — although it might be expensive.

  7. Adam A says:

    Red, as sympathetic as I am to doing things online and saving paper, it’s not as simple as you suggest. Doing the census accurately and consistently online is a major challenge. Setting up an online form is simple, but many households and individuals still do not have internet access. Moreover there has to be some method of physically verifying the accuracy of submitted results. Paper forms delivered to individual households via the postal service are traceable, verifiable, physically signed, and difficult for rogue individuals to intentionally disrupt on a wide scale. Online submissions are none of these things. Until there is a secure way to preregister for the census that is easier than simply mailing a questionairre (which is held only every 10 years), they still need to send mail to every household.

  8. Xzavier Montgomery-Wright, the Mayor of the Town of Brentwood, Maryland, said that she and the Town Council are busily preparing for the Census, and announced that the small muncipality in Prince George’s County will kick off its Countdown to Census 2010 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, January 23, 2010 at the Brentwood Town Hall, 4300 -39th Place. The event, which is free and open to the public, is designed to answer questions, provide information to residents about the upcoming Census, and obtain their input about how to encourage greater participation — particularly among hard to count groups — than occurred in 2000.

  9. Brian C says:

    Red, it seems to me that since census data is tied to an exact geographic location, an online version of census questions could be fraught with peril. Sure, for surveys and tabular data, a form with a specific PIN or code could be mailed to a residence, and then the respondent could have the option to reply online… however there might be issues with the transmission of data: what if the person answering is on an unsecured wifi connection? They have some very strict rules about the handling of information.

  10. Why in this day and age do we find the word “NEGRO” on the census form describing us as a group of people. I have heard that one of the reasons is to benefit the older crowd of Black people or African Americans. My Mother who’s in her 80′s refuses to use the term Negro and prefers the term African American. I myself who will be turning 60 this year prefer to use the simple term of Black. I know of no Black person or African American today that prefers to use the term “NEGRO”. So, I say this to you, whether you publish this comment or not, unless this word is removed from the 2010 Census as a description of Black people, I will boycott and not participate in the 2010 Census. I urge all other Black Americans to follow your hearts, but to realize how much we have struggled and how far we have come to get to where we are today. This in it self is another set back and another way of disgracing us as a people.

  11. In the Town of Brentwood, MD, a small municipality in Prince George’s County, we began our preparations for Census 2010 early so that we can do as much as possible to ensure a “complete count.” In the 2000 Census, only about 60 percent of Brentwood residents were counted. We hope and expect that the Town will do much better this time. This is due in large part to the cooperation and assistance of current Census Bureau officials and employees, as well as early planning by Mayor Xzavier Montgomery-Wright. Our Countdown to Census 2010 will be held Jan. 23. It should be very exciting.

  12. Bruce Fogarty says:

    My understanding is that the fine for Census 2010 can be up to $5,000, whereas in 2000 is was $100.

  13. kev@censusstaff says:

    Census Bureau Statement on 2010 Census Race Question
    A test embedded in the 2010 Census will measure the effect of removing the term “Negro” on reports about a person’s racial identity. The results will be used to inform design changes for future surveys and the 2020 Census. In the 2000 Census, more than 50,000 persons chose to write down explicitly that they identified themselves as “Negro.”
    ADDITIONAL BACKGROUND:
    The Census Bureau included the term “Negro” because testing prior to Census 2000 indicated that numbers of respondents self-identified with this term. Census 2000 data showed that 56,175 respondents wrote in the term “Negro” in response to the question on race, even though the term was included in the category label for a checkbox. This does not include the unknown numbers of respondents who may have checked the box “Black, African Am., or Negro” because of the presence of the “Negro” identifier.
    Research in the 2000s did not include studies of the effect of dropping “Negro” from the list “Black, African Am., or Negro” on responses. Such research is important to avoid unanticipated consequences of changing question wording on the outcome of a census. As stated above, this research will be conducted as part of the 2010 decennial census.

  14. Robert Sack says:

    Why does it have to say African American or Black American I notice the White name just says White not White American.Until we stop giving specila treatment to groups I will not fill out the census.

  15. Roger Cox says:

    In regards to completing the Census Online:
    Thus far, there have been no comments regarding the data security and redundancy checking that would be required to accurately ensure that the information gathered via online methods would not be fraudulent. IP addresses cannot be used for identification purposes under the law. Even to proceed under the assumption that IP addresses are legally identifying, IP addresses can be shared by multiple individuals over a short period of time e.g. Schools, Libraries, etc. The Census Bureau is right to not permit online completion.

  16. Angie B., Vancouver, WA says:

    Hello, My comment is mostly for the people concerned about terms regarding race. First of all, I want to clarify that I fall into the “white” category, simply because that’s how I was born, so please don’t discard my opinions solely based on that fact. And while I do understand that the issue of race and terminology is a huge one, don’t you think that you could put your personal feelings aside this time, for the greater good of the country? I’m sure there are better ways to get your point across than boycotting the survey completely. I turned 40 last year, and have never had the opportunity to participate in a Census survey for some reason. I’m looking forward to being part of history, for once. I’m not a very “politically inclined” person because it baffles my brain, but I’m trying to understand how things work because I do have a family that all the decisions we make now will affect in the future. So, I would just like to ask everyone, regardless of race, or gender, or anything else, to put aside their personal objections and participate in the Census for the greater good of EVERYONE, and then find a different outlet for your grievances and a better way to get your point across (though I wish I could tell you what that is, I have no clue!). Thank you for considering this for the benefit of our children and our future.

  17. Jeff says:

    Why must we even bother with the “race” question? Why should I have to pick from “White, African American, Black American, Hispanic American, etc., etc.? All I hear is racism cries! I for one am choosing “other” and writing in “HUMAN”

  18. Ben says:

    I understand people being unhappy with the term “negro” being on the questionnaire. However, boycotting the Census because of it is the wrong way to get that changed. In fact, having an entire ethnic group or area boycott the Census does nothing but harm to the boycotting group. It’s not like you’re going to get better funding for schools to educate people so they can understand that the term “negro” is outdated if you boycott the Census. On the contrary. Posting something here about it is useful, as I didn’t know the term was on the questionnaire, but boycotting? That’s a mistake. (And thanks to the Census employee who responded. That’s an important point you made.)

  19. Booger says:

    As a proud American, I will fill out the Census with what is required by the Constitution, namely, how many adults live at my house

  20. Paul Galey says:

    I have but one question: I have been informed that the only questionthat must be answered is the one that asks how many people reside in a single location. None of the other9 questions need to be responded to. Is this a legal and valid piece of information?

  21. Jared says:

    Why does the census ask for personally identifiable information for children (names and birthdays)? It is one thing to ask this for adults, but it is very intrusive to ask this for our children.

  22. kev@censusstaff says:

    Jared,
    The Census Act of March 1790 specified that all residents be counted, citizens and noncitizens alike; and every decade’s effort has followed that rule. By law, the Census Bureau cannot share respondents’ individually identifiable
    answers with anyone, including tribal housing authorities, other federal agencies and law enforcement entities. All Census Bureau employees take the oath of nondisclosure and are sworn for life to protect the confidentiality of the data. The penalty for unlawful disclosure is a fine of up to $250,000 or imprisonment of up to five years, or both.

  23. zak ryerson says:

    The Census Form is or will be available.
    _Anyone_ who wishes to do so _Could_ start an _UNOFFICIAL_ Census site.
    The person or group would then say _exactly_ how the information would be used.
    And would report, on some date, the response level, and the methods used to double check the responses.
    I do not feel that the U. S. Census Bureau will EVER conduct an “official” online census!

  24. Jeff says:

    Do more research Bruce! The $5000 fine is for giving false information, not just refusing to answer.

  25. Jeff says:

    I agree Jared. I am not going to answer my Census form at all!

  26. Patriot says:

    Exactly as you quoted from the constitution above you will find that absolutely NOTHING in the constitution requires anything other than the number of persons in your household over 16 years of age. All the gender, race, birthdate, is in direct violation of the constitution and should be removed or a best ignored by the citizens.

  27. Patriot,
    The U.S. Constitution empowers the Congress to carry out the census in “such manner as they shall by Law direct” (Article I, Section 2). Congress has passed numerous laws over the last two centuries governing the conduct of the census and other surveys. These laws are now incorporated in Title 13 of the United States Code. You can learn more at our website, 2010census.gov, and there is detailed information on the Census and the Constitution at this link: http://2010.census.gov/2010census/why/constitutional.php

  28. John C says:

    Do any of the changes to the Census Act of March 1790 require the counting of “illegal aliens” ? They are not citizens nor legal noncitizens ?

  29. Presidential administrations of both parties have repeatedly upheld the interpretation that the apportionment and census clauses of Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution and Section 2 of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, as well as the 1790
    Census Act and its successors, require that every person residing in the country must be included in the census count.

  30. Jeanne says:

    why is it important for me to disclose personal and private information to a government who is equally counting illegal aliens for the purpose of representation in the federal government? Kind of negates that reason for asking, doesn’t it? I have not seen any assurances that your data is going to be protected from identity thieves, all other government data bases have been hacked, I would expect the census to be no different. My Constitution, Bill of Rights, 4th Amendment, says that I basically have a reasonable expectation of privacy from the government, there is no reason to justify the questions I am expected to answer. If I were a felon, I could just get a public defender and take the fifth.

  31. DP says:

    The term was put on the Census form as a self identifier. On the 2000 Census, it was found that 56,000 people wrote in the term “negro” under race. That is what they self identified by. It was merely put in as an option for those that wanted to use it, not to set the race back in terms of racisim.

  32. ROBERT T. BURKES says:

    Forgive me,but I see no reason for me to step up and be counted. First MONEY for my area….just where does this money come from…myself and other taxpayers. Loss of a congres seat, someone please tell me the down side of that, every congresman we loose and his staff saves millions of dollare. nope, not me not this time i threw my census form in the garbage, if i am visited, i will silpely tell the census worker, no, not this time, ” I refuse to particape in something being done by a disfunctional Gouverment”

  33. Nancy says:

    In as much as the goal is to count everyone, do you think the wording “2010 CENSUS DATA CAPTURE CENTER” is the best choice for the pre-addressed return envelope? Were my legal status (documented, undocumented, etc.) subject to challenge, I think I would be leery of mailing my whereabouts to the “CAPTURE CENTER.”

  34. scottygirl says:

    I don’t know why there is a census, the government can get all our info from our yearly taxes. I just turned away a census taker that I was not comfortable with and she made it sound like I was going to go to jail. Is that true?

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