In the United States, the census is officially a big deal (see How the Census Works to learn exactly how big a deal it is). Originally, the census was meant to be a way to count everyone so that the members of the House of Representatives could be allocated properly to the states. Every 10 years there would be a count, and states with more people got more members in the House. Over time, the government has gotten significantly more complicated, and today, the federal government allocates billions of dollars to states for all sorts of programs, much of it based on population. The census provides the only official head count.
For 2020, the Census Bureau is encouraging U.S. residents to fill out the census online, using a special code they will receive in the mail. (If you don't have the code, you can still fill it out online with your street address.) On the Census website is this message: "Everyone living in the United States and its five territories is required by law to be counted in the 2020 Census." So what does that mean in practice? If you don't fill out the form, will you get into trouble?
Someone is very likely to notice if you do not fill out and return your form. After April 1 in a census year, all of the responses received by the U.S. Census Bureau will be compared to major lists of U.S. residences. If your response has not been received – or if you didn't complete all the questions on your form – someone from the census will contact you for that information.
If you refuse to give out the information or you deliberately give inaccurate information, you can be in legal trouble. According to United States Code, Title 13 (Census), Chapter 7 (Offenses and Penalties), SubChapter II, if you're over 18 and refuse to answer all or part of the census, you can be fined up to $100. If you give false answers, you're subject to a fine of up to $500. If you offer suggestions or information with the "intent to cause inaccurate enumeration of population," you are subject to a fine of up to $1,000, up to a year in prison, or both. Here's the official verbiage:
- Sec. 221. Refusal or neglect to answer questions; false answers
- (a) Whoever, being over eighteen years of age, refuses or willfully neglects, when requested by the Secretary, or by any other authorized officer or employee of the Department of Commerce or bureau or agency thereof acting under the instructions of the Secretary or authorized officer, to answer, to the best of his knowledge, any of the questions on any schedule submitted to him in connection with any census or survey provided for by subchapters I, II, IV, and V of chapter 5 of this title, applying to himself or to the family to which he belongs or is related, or to the farm or farms of which he or his family is the occupant, shall be fined not more than $100.
- (b) Whoever, when answering questions described in subsection (a) of this section, and under the conditions or circumstances described in such subsection, willfully gives any answer that is false, shall be fined not more than $500.
- (c) Notwithstanding any other provision of this title, no person shall be compelled to disclose information relative to his religious beliefs or to membership in a religious body.
- Sec. 222. Giving suggestions or information with intent to cause inaccurate enumeration of population Whoever, either directly or indirectly, offers or renders to any officer or employee of the Department of Commerce or bureau or agency thereof engaged in making an enumeration of population under subchapter II, IV, or V of chapter 5 of this title, any suggestion, advice, information or assistance of any kind, with the intent or purpose of causing an inaccurate enumeration of population to be made, shall be fined not more than $1,000 or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.
Note that the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 has increased the fine for any criminal misdemeanor to as much as $5,000. In practice, though, no one has been prosecuted for not filling out the census since 1970, according to a 2014 PolitiFact article.
However, even if you don't get fined for not filling out the census form, there are some good reasons you should do it anyway. Seats in the House of Representatives seats are apportioned by population, with the most populous states receiving the most seats. Federal and state governments rely on census data to budget for social welfare programs that assist the poor, elderly, disabled and veterans. Cities and private industry use demographic figures to plan new hospitals and housing developments, and to assess the need for new schools or new strip malls. So, not filling out the census form may cost you something in the long run.