Friday, February 03, 2023

Census mailing not a scam

| May 5, 2022 1:00 AM

An odd piece of mail arrived this week, labeled “United States Census.” Boxed on the label was, “The American Community Survey” and “YOUR RESPONSE IS REQUIRED BY LAW.”

So insistent. Fraud, I wondered? Is this one of those look-alikes to steal personal data?

Nope. It’s legit, directing me to a site. The U.S. Census Bureau really is collecting local data, and this time it’s also for local purposes.

It took me 15-20 minutes for a household of three. I was asked the expected questions about birth dates, household members, race and ethnicity. I was also asked about work commute, health insurance, disability, profession and income. One person fills it out for a household.

Why so personal; what’s it all for? Who made it a requirement and why complete it?

1) The Constitution says so. Article 1, Section 2 states in part, “[An] enumeration shall be made within three years after the first meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent term of 10 years, in such manner as they shall by law direct.”

No, the ACS isn’t the decennial census; just consider it an extension. Each year between decennial censuses the Census Bureau sends out these confidential community surveys randomly to various parts of the country to get data for local governments such as cities and counties. Those local governments and everyone else who read the resulting reports don’t get names and birthdates and personalized details; they simply get total counts and culled statistics.

2) Census data translates to money for North Idahoans. From street repairs to bus services, school lunches, FEMA funds for firefighters, local planning and budgeting and so much more, having updated, specific information about communities gives local governments and agencies data they need to plan, as well as ammunition to apply for federal programs, assistance and cost sharing.

Given how fast North Idaho has been growing, 2020 population numbers from the last census are already out of date. So if you don’t answer the Census, that’s less money and resources available here, which will be on you.

3) Answering it supports employment and private enterprise. Put simply, the Census indirectly stimulates the economy. Vocational, adult education, and job assistance programs rely on Census data for funding allocations. Accurate, up-to-date census data helps businesses forecast supply and demand, as well as develop and market products. Architects, contractors and real estate firms need to know the size and composition of households to design, build and sell housing. Utilities use the Census to plan facilities and networks. Those are just a few examples.

4) Kids. General census data determine how much Idaho gets to feed kids whose parents can’t afford enough. Grants for child abuse services, nonprofits and other resources to help child victims of crime. For immunizations so uninsured kids won’t get polio or diphtheria. Education programs, including kids with special needs who need additional resources beyond the capabilities of the average classroom. Alcohol and drug abuse prevention and services. Head Start. Pell grants for college students. It’s a long list.

5) Veterans, seniors and the disabled. Meals on wheels. PTSD counseling. Wheelchairs. Adapted computers so the blind or deaf can work. Space is insufficient to list the many programs using federal dollars which these populations rely on just to get by. Your Census response helps increase population counts in Idaho to better serve their needs.

6) Health care and the elderly. One in 10 Idahoans has Medicaid, and nearly 2 in 10 are on Medicare, according to a 2019 survey of states by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Two-thirds of American seniors in nursing and assisted living facilities rely on both. The funding formulas for both include population, age counts and other data provided by the Census.

7) Boundaries. Legislative, state and local voting district boundary determinations are made using Census data.

8) Disaster relief. Accurate census information helps local and state governments and relief agencies plan and address transportation, food, medical and emergency services, displacement, shelter and other needs for populations affected by natural disasters such as fires, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes. And probably the fallout from this virus.

Finally, if you’re a research buff like me and get a kick from statistics, or just like to verify what you read, Census data is ground zero. If you like top 10 lists, social science stats, studies and surveys, pie charts and other nerdy stuff like that, then you’re a Census fan. It’s a key element in a lot of research.

No computer? No problem. Do it by phone at 844-354-7271.

Note on the ethnicity question: It’s a two-parter, asking about race and underlying heritage. Many Americans are too melting pot to know or pick just one underlying heritage. I wrote “mixed.” If you don’t know, it seems leaving part two blank works.

Yes, this category has long been controversial. Proposals both to increase its detail and scale it back have been made and rejected. On the one hand, it’s been handy to know how our population has shifted over the centuries. It makes sense for a nation to know its population makeup and characteristics. Whether on balance ethnic data hurts or helps discrimination in this nation is hotly debated; perhaps both at times.

The U.S. Census Bureau states the identifying information is confidential — not shared with anyone including other federal agencies, and that the resulting statistics they produce for public consumption are untraceable to specific individuals or households. These statistics are used for research, targeted programs for the underprivileged, civil rights efforts, medical information, arts and scientific studies and more.

Finally, as Press Better Business Bureau columnist Jason Kama once warned, be wary of scams. The U.S. Census does not ask your Social Security number, bank information, passwords or other financial details other than total income (which needn’t be exact). There is no money required to answer it. Look for the official return address in Jeffersonville, Ind.

For more information see

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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network who’s a statistics nerd. Contact her at

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