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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Census will make certain you count


By Jerry Burris

If you've been watching television recently or paying any kind of attention to the news media, you have no doubt seen some kind of ad for the upcoming national Census.

It is important to be counted, the ads say. And they are right. Virtually everything the federal government does (and much of the states for that matter) depends on the Census, that once-a-decade headcount that tells us who we are, what we are and where we are.

It is easy to hide out from the government; to insist that "they" have no right to know intimate details of our lives. But that would be a mistake. So long as we accept that Uncle Sam has an ability to help us, we have an obligation to share a bit of information about ourselves.

The ads make the obvious point: Washington passes out money based on numbers derived from the Census. How many poor people? How many of a certain ethnicity?

An enormous number of federal programs use Census numbers to decide where the cash will be handed out.

As the Census people say, the numbers will be used for everything from social services to emergency planning.

Just one example: According to their information, in 2009, the federal government plugged a quarter of a million dollars into a grant designed to strengthen communities. The money was directly related to what the Census said about the situation on the ground.

But for all the social impacts of the Census, there is a political one as well. The nose counting exercise will likely determine the boundaries of our U.S. congressional districts (we have two) and perhaps even our state legislative districts. We have long held to the basic principle of one person, one vote. That means everyone has an equal shot of being represented in the County Council, Legislature or Congress.

But how do you figure that out? Answer: The Census.

How many of us are we, and where exactly do we live? If this seems arcane to you, it is a matter of extreme importance to those who hold office or seek to do so. They puzzle over boundary lines determined by Census counts the way mere mortals try to figure out odds on the Super Bowl.

So make no mistake. This matters. People who are underrepresented do not have as strong a voice in the halls of the Legislature or Congress. The numbers that drive the laying out of district boundary lines are dictated by the Census.

So stand up. Be counted.