In the U.S., the census is officially a big deal (see How the Census Works for 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 money to states for all sorts of programs. Something like $100 billion gets distributed every year, and quite a bit of it is distributed based on population. The census provides the only official head count of the population.
Someone is very likely to notice if you do not fill out and return your form. After April 1, all 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. The census is a $6.5 billion dollar project. They can afford to be thorough!
If you refuse to give out the information or if 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 innaccurate 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:
221. Refusal or neglect to answer questions; false answers
For more information on the Census, see How the Census Works.
- (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.