Participation matters

Learning how many people live in the United States — and how they live — is important for any number of reasons. That is why the census is conducted every decade.

Information the census collects is of interest not just to demographers. It is used to apportion states’ members of the U.S. House of Representatives. It helps direct federal dollars to areas where schools need the most help, where economic development needs to be a priority, even where health care needs are greatest.

Accurate information is critical, then. That means honest answers to Census Bureau questionnaires by the highest percentage of Americans achievable.

For that reason, a public opinion poll conducted by The Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago should be a gigantic concern in Washington.

Among those responding to the poll, about 70% said it is extremely or very likely they will fill out census questionnaires. Another 20% said it is somewhat likely they will participate.

That along is worrisome. Think about it: At least 10% of people who know about the census will not cooperate. That leaves an enormous number of Americans who will not take part because they are not even aware of the census. Many will toss envelopes from the government into the trash, assuming it is more junk mail.

Another aspect of the poll is troubling, too. About one-third of respondents said they have little or no confidence the Census Bureau will keep their private information confidential. Only one-third are every or extremely confident their answers to census questions will be kept confidential.

Obviously, people who worry that Washington will allow the wrong people to have access to their information are less likely to take part in the census.

Frankly, we don’t blame the skeptics. In case you hadn’t noticed, the federal government does not have a sterling record of keeping secrets, much less of effectiveness in keeping data secure.

If Census Bureau officials want to maximize participation in their information-gathering campaign, then, they need to give Americans more reason to believe our data will be used only as promised.