Distrust of government affecting Census return rates in Virginia

There’s a story on WTOP News about the Census form return rate in Virginia being especially low. I know it’s April Fool’s Day but – seriously – this is also “Census Day,” the day people are encouraged to have mailed their Census forms back by. Apparently lots of Virginians aren’t doing so, it would seem because of a lack of trust in the government and a feeling that they’re already being too intrusive.

According to the story, 52% of Americans have returned their forms. The rate in Virginia is only 34%. Now, it could be that we’re a busy bunch and it’s in the “to-do” stack. Or, they may be right and it’s people concerned that the current administration is going to use the info for something we’d prefer they don’t. I’m a member of that 34%. I returned the form this past weekend and I did so for a couple of very good reasons.

First, let us not forget it’s the law. Second, and very importantly, it’s a critical input to our constitutional function. The census is called for in the Constitution for the purposes of determining our representation in the House. By not responding, people are artificially lowering the population count. That results in fewer representatives in the House and, therefore, less involvement and influence on the major issues facing this nation. All manner of other governmental functions such as various funding formulas and resource distribution are based on the census data.

Finally, and this one hits me personally, the Census data is a critical piece of research material for genealogists and historians. Family relations going back generations can be documented in the Census records as can family travel and migration patterns. Looking at the US Census data is usually the first place new genealogists go and usually wind up producing results that can carry research further into other data sets.

The form itself is unbelievably short this year. Name, gender, date of birth, ownership of residence and race are the only questions asked. Nothing about income. Nothing about politics, what job you’re working, whether or not you can read, what language you speak at home, where you were born – none of that is requested and all of that was on the census forms at one time or another in the past. Seriously, folks, they aren’t asking for anything untoward.

Except, perhaps, the questions of race. They want to know if you’re 1) Hispanic, in any way and 2) what race you are if you’re not Hispanic. This is the only question I found of dubious value. It’s been on the census form for 200 years, I know, but that doesn’t make it information that the federal government should be asking. The only real reason to ask that is to develop a racial profile of America. And why would you want to do that, if a person’s race is immaterial as regards his interaction with government.

Feel free to leave that one blank, if you like, or do as I’ve read people are doing and check the “Other” box, writing in “American” on the line. The census is something our Founding Fathers thought critical enough to include explicitly in the Constitution. Trust them if not their political descendants in the government today. Fill out the form and mail it in.

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One comment

  1. I sent mine in today, which according to the form is the date to which all the questions apply. It seemed kind of strange to be asked who is staying in your house on April 1st, but also be told to send in the form weeks prior to that date.

    This may sound petty, but why is the date chosen if it doesn’t matter? What if you had a baby due on 30 March? What if your parents are visiting for a week starting 1 April?

    Other countries do it differently. In 2005 I was living in Australia during their census, which is done every 5 years. Like here, it was a big deal with lots of advertising. But unlike here the census occurs on one day, and everyone is told to fill out their forms on that day and only on that day. You can fill it out on paper or online. If you are traveling away from home, you are to specify where you are on that day as well as where you normally live. As non-Australian legal residents, my family was required to participate and indicate our citizenship. Overall, the Aussie census was done much better. Of course, this is a country where everyone is legally required to vote. So maybe they are just odd.

    But not sending in your form generally doesn’t keep you from being counted. It just means that a census worker will knock on your door. They already have your address (for most people). And when they do, you probably won’t get a choice on the race question. The worker generally just fills in the box based on what you look like.

    So today is the day the form was to be completed. Do it and send it in.

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