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Census a priority in the Panhandle

By Staff | Mar 19, 2010

Census 2010 forms have arrived at homes throughout the region. Census Bureau officials say the questionaire takes about 10 minutes to complete.

HARPERS FERRY – The Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, the Jefferson County Census Bureau, and the U.S. Census Bureau met recently at a local restaurant to discuss the 2010 Census.

Elizabeth Guthrie, a representative from the U.S. Census Bureau stressed the importance of full census participation, saying, “First and foremost, your federal and state representation in government is determined by census data. The second thing is that each year, over $400 billion in federal funding that is put back into our communities to support social services, hospitals, education, roads, and transportation. And grants rely on census data.”

Guthrie’s talk was Thursday, Feb. 25.

The government has changed the face of the census this year in an effort to make citizens more aware that completing the form benefits their community and everyday life. The government’s goal is to increase the ease of completing the form, while at the same time decrease any fear that people may have about mailing information to a government agency.

Perhaps the most important change in Census 2010 is the drastically simplified form. Many people viewed past forms as complex and time consuming, and avoided filling them out as a result. To encourage increased participation this year, the form has only 10 questions that should take about 10 minutes in total to complete.

Another challenge the Census Bureau has faced is the perception of the public about privacy issues. Many people are uneasy about participating because of fear of giving information to the government. Many wonder exactly who will see their completed form.

In an attempt to address these concerns, Elizabeth Guthrie pointed out that there are legal implications for census workers if they do not keep data confidential. Guthrie says, “As a census employee, any employee working for the Bureau has taken an oath for their lifetime to protect people’s confidentiality . . . If we would violate that oath, we would face termination of employment, up to five years in jail, and up to $250,000 in fines. So you can rest assured that the people who will be helping to collect your census data won’t violate your confidentiality.”

Another point that Guthrie makes is that data, once it has been collected, is sealed and kept private. She explains, “Whatever you put on your census form is sealed for 72 years within the Census Bureau. We cannot share information with law enforcement or any other agency within the government, and only the results are published at a statistical level to the President.”

Allaying the public’s concerns regarding census participation and getting full participation is especially important to Jefferson County.

While most counties in central and southern West Virginia are either holding steady or decreasing in population, the Eastern Panhandle is experiences tremendous growth.

The 2008 US Census Population Eastimate shows Shepherdstown’s population in a slight decline, down 56 to 1,146. Charles Town grew 63.9 percent and Martinsburg’s change was 13.7 percent. The increases, if recorded accurately by this year’s census, will mean the Panhandle will have a greater say down in Charleston. A state once driven almost entirely by coal interests may find itself considering entirely different economic and legislative drivers.

Lastly, Jefferson County residents should be aware that census numbers translate into real dollars locally. According to County Commissioner Jim Surkamp, “For every person that isn’t counted in the census, county and local government will lose roughly $500 yearly in video lottery distributions.”

Area residents should look for a census form in their mailboxes this month. Filling it out accurately and returning it promptly will help ensure Jefferson County gets its fair share of funding and government representation.

Students in the Department of Communication at Shepherd University wrote this article. The Advertising & Imagery class is working with the Jefferson County Commission to promote census participation.

– Mary Stortstrom is a student in Shepherd University’s Deopartment of Mass Communcation.