It’s time for Rappahannock residents to be counted. In the next week or so, a packet from the U.S. Census Bureau will land in each of our mailboxes, marking the start of another once-a-decade quest for demographic information.
As is the case every time these surveys roll out, there will be a good deal of chatter about personal privacy and countless conspiracy theories on how government officials intend to use this information.
U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) certainly didn’t help the cause of future census-takers when she said, “I know for my family, the only question we will be answering is how many people are in our home. We won’t be answering any information beyond that.”
While asking questions of those seeking personal information is wise, this isn’t the best time to pick that battle. These forms have been going out for 220 years and we’ve yet to hear of any census-related scandals. In fact, those worried about prying eyes should know that page-by-page census information is not made available until 72 years after the original census date, to protect personal privacy. In other words, the most recent U.S. census available for research is the 1930 census, and any questions answered today won’t be made public until 2082.
For Rappahannock — and every other county in the country — it’s critical that these questionnaires are filled out.
In addition to helping states and local communities with key planning decisions, census figures determine how federal funding is doled out. The more residents a city or state has, the more federal money it receives. Responses to the census will decide a community’s share of $400 billion in federal funding for services such as hospitals, schools and highways.
In these dire economic times, failing to get Rappahannock residents counted could cost the county hundreds of thousands of dollars during the next decade. It could very well mean the difference in getting a bridge repaired or keeping a school open.
Population numbers are also used to decide how many members of the U.S. House of Representatives are allocated to each state. Unofficial tallies had Virginia’s population growing by nearly 500,000 people this decade. If all of those new faces get counted this spring, there’s a chance the state’s representation in the House of Representatives will jump from 11 to 12. Census figures also help set boundaries for state legislative districts.
But at the end of the day, these forms are about more than apportioning political representation in Congress or helping policymakers distribute money. They also provide an instructive snapshot of who we are and how we live, person by person, neighborhood by neighborhood, county by county. The puzzle pieces we fill in during the next three months will likely help future generations make better decisions on multiple fronts.
To their credit, census officials have made the process as painless as possible. During the last go-round 10 years ago, one in six households received longer, more in-depth questionnaires. This year, every form will have the same 10 questions.
Grab a pencil, set 15 minutes aside and be counted.