Washington State

Office of the Attorney General

Attorney General

Bob Ferguson

By now we have all seen the attention-grabbing U.S. census commercials that first aired during the last Super Bowl. Developed by this blogger’s all-time favorite director Christopher Guest - creator of such American classics as “A Mighty Wind”, “Best in Show” and “This is Spinal Tap” – the spots feature most of the genius comedic actors from the films. They’re preparing for a massive project called “A Snapshot of America” much in the same way producers and directors prepare for a gargantuan budget summer blockbuster. While in the commercials they’re absurdly trying to plan how to literally capture all 300 million Americans on film, the idea is essentially what the census is – taking a snapshot of America.

At the end of every decade to plan for the next, the federal government has 10 questions for every American. While the questions are simply answered (not to mention required by federal law), their importance cannot be overstated. Using the data collected from the 2010 census, over $400 billion in federal funds will be allocated to communities across the country for such things as hospitals, schools, emergency services, and public works projects. To place the cherry on top of this significant sundae, the final tallies also determine how many seats Washington state will have in the U.S. House of Representatives starting with the 2012 midterm elections. 

As Census Bureau Director Robert M. Groves describes it, “It's one of the shortest forms in our lifetime with just 10 questions very much like the questions James Madison and Thomas Jefferson helped craft on the very first census.”

Pretty important stuff for just answering 10 simple questions, right? Most would agree. Well, with the first part of that sentence at least.

Now more than ever, people are particularly guarded about their personal information. Given the epidemic-like presence of identity theft, this is understandable. So even though there is a general consensus, as it were, regarding the benefits the census can have for our communities, the process itself is met by many with some reservation. 

The chief concern for many lies with the census takers going door to door collecting information from those who have not yet returned the questionnaire. Like all census employees, they are governed by the strictest of protocols. Census takers swear under oath to keep gathered information private under Federal Law Title 13, a violation of which is punishable by up to five years in prison and/or a fine of up to $250,000. On top of this, any and all information gathered by the census is confidential for 72 years. Not even the commander in chief can look at it. 

But how do you know the person knocking on your door is really with the census? Census takers are required by law to clearly present their ID badge adorned with the U.S. Department of Commerce watermark and their name. While the badge does not include their photo, the respondent can confirm a census worker by calling the number on the Notice of Confidentiality that is given prior to the survey.

Other potential fraudulent activities to be aware of:

  • The Census Bureau does NOT conduct the 2010 census via the Internet.
  • The Census Bureau does NOT send e-mails regarding the 2010 census. Should you receive an e-mail that claims to be from the census, do not open any attachments as they may infect your computer and forward immediately to ITSO.Fraud.Reporting@census.gov.
  • The Census Bureau will NEVER:
    • Ask for your Social Security number.
    • Ask for money or a donation.
    • Send requests on behalf of a political party.
    • Request PIN codes, passwords or similar access information for credit cards, banks or other financial accounts.

At the end of the day, the best and by far the most efficient way to participate in the 2010 census is to simply take a moment to completely fill out the questionnaire and return it in the prepaid envelope. Not only does it makes any potential further contact more easily identified as fraud, but as Groves explained, “It costs the government just 42 cents for a postage paid envelope when a household mails back the form. It costs $57 to send a census taker door-to-door to follow up with each household that fails to respond.”

This is a huge project, people. It’ll take everyone’s help to get a good, clear picture of 300 million people. 

Say cheese! 

-- By Darius Schwarz, AGO Public Affairs Intern