Here’s What Could Happen If You Don’t Answer the Census

The penalties for not answering the U.S. Census are harsher than you think.

Filling out the U.S. Census is a legal requirement but what does that mean, exactly? Why is the census necessary and what happens to the people who don’t comply? We’ve got the answers to all your nagging questions from the origins of the census, what the information is used for, and what penalties await the people who don’t comply.

When did the census start?

The first U.S. Census was in 1790. George Washington was president and our country was young and new. The initial census was performed by U.S. Marshalls under the direction of census manager, Thomas Jefferson. It was conducted throughout the 13 original states and what were, at that time, the districts of Maine, Kentucky, Vermont and the Southwest Territory of Tennessee.

The first questions asked were very much reflective of our nation’s dark past. In addition to asking for the name of the head of household, the census also inquired about the white free males living in the house, the free white women, the number of other free people, and the number of slaves in the household.

What is the information used for?

If you’ve ever wondered what the census information was used for but it was one of the political questions you were too embarrassed to ask, read on. The Decennial Census is required by the U.S. Constitution in Article One, Section 2. The information was originally used to determine how many congressional representatives each area would get. Since then, however, the information has been put to additional uses. Population centers have changed a lot since 1790 so the information is crucial when it comes to re-defining state and legislative districts. Federal funds, grants, and other means of federal support are determined by the census count, and the additional data gathered about race, age, and gender are factors, too.

Since tabulated data is publically available, the census is also a powerful tool for businesses that create jobs by the information to determine where to build factories and stores. Local governments also use the data to help plan for public safety and other initiatives. What this means is that if everybody doesn’t participate, your community could get short-changed.

How do you participate in the census?

There are several ways to respond to the 2020 U.S. Census. The majority of the country will receive official information from the U.S. Census Bureau in March with detailed instructions on how to supply the requested information by mail, online, or by phone. Shortly after that, the Census Bureau will work with local municipalities to count those experiencing homelessness. April 1st is officially Census Day. Remember those instructions they sent you in March? Now it’s time to use them. Throughout the month of May and July, U.S. Census workers will be deployed to physically knock on doors to collect the information in person from people who didn’t respond.

How do you know that’s really a U.S. Census worker at your door?

It’s possible that a U.S. Census worker will visit your home as early as April for a quality check interview or May to help collect responses. All U.S. Census workers carry a badge with their name, photograph, a U.S. Department of Commerce watermark, and expiration date. If you are at all concerned about a U.S. Census worker’s identity, don’t hesitate to call your Regional Census Center. Your safety is important—here are more home security tips you need to know.

So what happens if you don’t comply?

If you don’t respond to the U.S. Census, the first thing that will happen is a bunch of knocks on your door as representatives attempt to take the information from you in person. If you don’t want to hassle with that or waste their time, fill out the paperwork by mail, telephone, or online. It doesn’t stop there, however. If you don’t comply with the U.S. Census requirement, you can be fined up to $5,000.00 for not responding. If that seems bad, it could be worse. Until 1976, the possible penalty also included 60 days of prison time for not responding and a year in prison for not responding. Why risk it? It’s kind of like waiting to see what happens if you don’t pay your parking tickets; it’s far easier to participate and comply.

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Tamara Gane
Tamara Gane is a regular contributor to Reader's Digest covering travel, lifestyle, history, and culture. Her work has also appeared in The Washington Post, NPR, Al Jazeera, Wine Enthusiast, Lonely Planet, HuffPost Food, and more. You can follow her on Twitter @TamaraGane