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2010 Census: Make a difference in 10 minutes without leaving your couch

Worried about ballooning federal budgets and looking for a way to force Washington to stop spending so much money? The power is in your hands this month, with an opportunity you won't get again for another decade.

As early as today, a 2010 Census form will be arriving in your mailbox. If you fill it out and send it back in, it will cost the government 42 cents for a first-class stamp. If you don't, the government will send someone to your door, and that costs an average of $57 for every response. The Census Bureau estimates that each percentage point increase in the mail response rate to the census saves $85 million. In 2000, about 72 percent of Americans (and 73 percent of Marylanders) mailed back their forms; if everyone did it this time, the government would save $1.5 billion.

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Why does the government go to such great lengths to conduct the census? It's actually required in the Constitution. The information the government collects on who lives where is the basis for the apportionment of congressional seats among the states, and within states it is used to draw district lines for federal, state and local elected offices. Without an accurate count, we cannot ensure that every person is given equal representation in their government.

Based on the population estimates the Census Bureau conducts between its actual counts, it doesn't look likely that Maryland will gain or lose any seats in Congress -- or votes in the Electoral College -- based on this year's count. But Pennsylvania is on the bubble to lose another seat after the two it shed following the 2000 census.

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The data collected by the Census bureau are also used to allocate about $400 billion a year in federal aid for education, transportation, health care and other services. An accurate count makes sure the money goes to where it's actually needed.

In spite of the fact that the census has been conducted dozens of times over our nation's history and has so clearly benign a purpose, it is perennially greeted with suspicion, even hostility, by some. The list of frequently asked questions on the 2010 Census Web site hints at this. The first is about why the Census Bureau bought an ad during the Super Bowl (the agency wanted to reach the largest possible audience, CBS gave them a good deal, and the Super Bowl is perhaps the only show on television in which people make a point of watching the ads). Other questions focus on whether the bureau hires criminals to conduct its counts (no), why it counts illegal immigrants (it always has) and whether the government will sell respondents' personal information (it's prohibited by law from sharing such data).

But changes in the way the Census Bureau collects information should make this year's process seem less intrusive. In 2000 and in other recent censuses, the bureau sent two different forms to households. Most got a short form, asking basic information about the number of people in the household, their age, race and sex. But a sampling of people got a long form that asked dozens of detailed questions about income, citizenship status, educational attainment, even the number of rooms in your house. Some people found that nosy and had a hard time seeing why it was necessary.

This time, the Census Bureau has done away with that. Everyone will get a short form this year with just 10 questions, not all that different from the six questions that were part of the original census in 1790. Here's what's on this year's form:

Question 1 asks how many people are living in a household as of April 1, 2010, which is necessary for apportioning of political representation. Question 2 asks for any people who were left out of the count in question 1 (such as children or other relatives), a follow-up that has been asked in every census since 1880 to ensure accuracy. Question 3 asks whether the home is owned or rented, a question asked since 1890 to help gauge the nation's economy and to target housing programs. Question 4 asks for a telephone number in case the bureau has questions about the form. Question 5 asks for the names of people in the house, also useful in case the bureau has follow-up questions. Question 6 asks for the sex of each person in the household. That's appeared on every census form since 1790 and is used, among other things, for applying equal employment opportunity laws. Question 7 asks for the ages of people in the household, information that's useful for projecting future enrollment in Medicare and Social Security. Questions 8 and 9 ask about race and Hispanic or Latino origin, which is used to help administer anti-discrimination laws and the Voting Rights Act. And question 10 asks whether each person sometimes lives elsewhere, like in a college dorm, as a further check on accuracy.

That's it. It's simple, it's crucial for the operation of our political system, it ensures that government funds are spent where they're needed, and mailing back the form saves the taxpayers a bundle of money. There aren't many times when you can do something so important with so little effort.

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