Every 10 years, the United States is required to count the number of people— citizens and non-citizens—living here and in its territories. This year U.S. residents are being counted again.

The census tracks, not just the number of people, but where those people are located. This process is important for a number of reasons, mostly related to how things in the United States are allocated.

Annually, over $300 billion in federal dollars are allocated to states and local jurisdictions based on the number of people the census can document. An undercount can cost a city or town potentially millions of dollars each year until the census is taken again. These resources are necessary for providing a variety of services and supporting many programs and institutions. According to Radio One on-air personality Larry Young, every person not counted costs an area $10,000 over 10 years, which can add up quickly and put many needed services at risk.

The count in an area is also important for determining the location of roads, hospitals, schools, senior centers, businesses – especially supermarkets and shopping centers – and housing.

Political representation also hinges on the number of people counted as part of the census. At the local level, these numbers are used to create the legislative districts and also determine the number of legislators a state can send to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Counting all the residents is a huge undertaking and operates on a schedule. Last year, the Census Bureau worked hard to recruit and train the people needed to complete the 2010 count. Now the real work is about to begin. In February/March 2010, the census forms will be mailed to all households. There are seven questions – just seven – to be answered for each person in the household, including name, relationships, gender, age, ethnic origin, race and other residences. That’s it. Then the information is mailed back to the Census Bureau and it’s done.

Census Day is April 1. That is the day census takers are deployed to visit the households that have not returned a questionnaire so the information on those residents can be gathered manually. They will do this until July or all those who did not return a questionnaire are counted.

Information, aggregated and sorted, about the total number of people in the United States is reported to President Obama in December 2010.

Because an undercount has such serious ramifications for cities like Baltimore and the District of Columbia, there is a big focus on efforts to encourage people to participate by local politicians, the media, the NAACP and other community organizations. Young, formerly a Maryland state senator, said an undercount in the last census cost Baltimore dearly, and not just in dollars. He said the city lost two representatives in the Maryland General Assembly, which likely cost the city additional resources.