March 25, 2010

Stand up and be counted

by Diana Pounds

South Duff Avenue is a good example of what a difference a census can make. Members of a city-university committee seeking to ensure a complete and accurate census count say it's no coincidence that Best Buy, Borders Bookstore, Super Walmart and Panera Bread arrived on South Duff after the 2000 census, in which Ames broke the 50,000 population mark. National retailers use census data to help them decide where to open new stores, these officials say.

But the census count influences more than what new business comes to town. Census data helps officials set locations for schools, roads, hospitals and child care and senior citizen centers. The data also determines how many seats each state gets in the U.S. House of Representatives and is used to set boundaries of legislative districts. And each year, $400 billion in federal funds is distributed to states based on census numbers.

In the following Q&A, two Complete Count Committee members -- John McCarroll, executive director of ISU University Relations, and Susan Gwiasda, public relations officer for the city of Ames -- tell how and why you should stand up and be counted.

Why do we need a census?

The U.S. Constitution requires a national census once every 10 years.

When will I get my census questionnaire?

Most Ames residents are receiving their questionnaires in the mail now. Students in the ISU residence halls will receive their questionnaires in April.

How long does it take to complete the form?

A few minutes. There are only 10 questions on the form. (10 questions, 10 minutes is a Census 2010 slogan)

When is the completed form due?

Everyone is encouraged to mail their census forms back (in the postage-paid envelopes), by April 1, which has been designated national Census Day. Ames officials have set March 25 as "Claim Ames Day." During the morning, you can turn in your completed form at popular CyRide stops, the downtown post office or the Ames public library and enter a drawing to win one of 100 $50 gift cards to local stores such as HyVee, Walmart and Target.

What happens if I don't turn my census form in?

A census "enumerator" will visit your home sometime between April and July to get your data. Taxpayers have an incentive for mailing in their forms. Every 1 percent increase nationally in mailed forms will save an estimated $80 million to $90 million.

What if I live out of town or state for part of the year?

On your census form, you should claim the place where you live and sleep most of the time. That may not necessarily be your legal or voting residence or your hometown. For example, an ISU international student is an Ames resident for census purposes. So is a student whose hometown is Atlantic, but who lives in Ames during the school year. Even undocumented immigrants living in Ames should complete the census, and they can do so with confidence that their information will not be shared (see below).

Who gets to see individual census data?

By law, the Census Bureau can't share your individual information with anyone or any agency for 72 years. Census workers take an oath for life to protect the confidentiality of census information. Violators of that oath face up to five years imprisonment, a fine of up to $250,000 or both.