Could Ignoring This Government Letter Cost You $5,000?

Surprised woman reading a letter
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The 2020 U.S. Census is upon us. The U.S. Constitution requires that every decade, a census must be taken to count all people in the U.S.

Call it a hunch, but we guess that few of you enjoy filling out the paperwork the U.S. Census Bureau sends to each home. However, throwing that letter in the trash is probably not wise.

Technically, the government could fine you to the tune of up to $5,000 for failing to comply with its request. If you intentionally provide false information, the fine could jump to $10,000.

How likely are you to be on the hook for thousands of dollars in penalties? Not very likely. In fact, the Census Bureau itself states that no one has gone under the microscope in 50 years:

“Participation is mandatory, as described in Title 13 of the U.S. Code. Refusal to respond can result in a fine. However, no one has been prosecuted for failing to respond to the census since the 1970 Census.”

The American Bar Association notes that in 1976, Congress eliminated both a 60-day prison sentence for noncompliance and a one-year prison term for falsifying answers.

Although you might not be penalized for failing to fill out your census form, your community still could suffer for your lack of participation. The Census Bureau notes that census results help determine:

  • How much funding local communities receive for key public services
  • How many seats each state gets in Congress

Census data is used to distribute billions of dollars in federal funds for health, education, housing and infrastructure programs in states and local communities.

In addition, officials in state and local governments use census data to draw congressional, state legislative and school district boundaries.

So, it still makes sense to do your civic duty. And this time around, you have more breathing room to complete your form.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed many aspects of our lives, and the census is no different. You now have until Sept. 30 to comply.

Once you finish your form, you can exhale. But your relief may last only a little while. The Census Bureau can also require you to fill out a form known as the American Community Survey. According to the bureau:

“The ACS is an important sample survey conducted in the United States. It is designed to provide more current demographic, social, economic, and housing estimates throughout the decade. Each address in the United States has a small chance of being selected in a month, and no address should be selected more than once every 5 years.”

Failure to fill out the survey — which takes an average of 40 minutes to complete — can result in fines of up to $5,000. No word on whether those penalties also amount to a “paper tiger.”

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