By Niel Ritchie

Ten questions that can be completed in 10 minutes - the U.S. Census doesn't sound like much but its importance can't be overstated: In 2008, the last year for which data is available, Minnesota received more than $7 billion based on the decennial headcount, accounting for a fifth of the state's annual revenue.

According to a report out this week by the Brookings Institution, more than $400 billion in federal funds for 215 programs will be tied to data collected in the 2010 Census.

When stimulus package dollars are added in, the overall tally tops a half trillion. Health care represents the largest allotment by far, but also on that list are such things as economic development grants, energy assistance, transportation projects, and education and job-training programs.

And every person counts. As the report's authors note: "To illustrate the fiscal impact of decennial census accuracy, each additional person included in the Census 2000 resulted in an annual additional Medicaid reimbursement to most states of between several hundred and several thousand dollars."

A complete count of people living in the United States is constitutionally mandated every decade and participation is required by law, yet thousands of Minnesotans nonetheless are missed.

In 1990 about 20,000 state residents were overlooked and 10 years later it was more than 14,000, amounting to a loss of millions over the 10-year-life of each census.

"In a time of very tight state budgets communities can't afford to lose funding for housing, education, transportation, health care - all the programs that are supported in large part on population counts," said Barbara Ronningen, demographer with the Minnesota Demographic Center.

Rural residents are among those at greatest risk for going uncounted, a fearsome reality for states like Minnesota already struck hard by tough economic times.

Dennis Johnson, regional director with the Census Bureau, noted, "The Census is about fairness and equality, and the further we get from an accurate count the less equality we will have."

But more than just federal funds are at stake. Census data determine how many seats each state receives in the U.S. House of Representatives and are used by a wide range of agencies, businesses and nonprofits to promote jobs growth and better serve their communities.

Census questionnaires will begin arriving next week and are due back by April 1. Whether Minnesota gets its fair share of federal funds is up to us.

As noted by Rep. Tim Walz (D-Mankato): "Since this data is used to determine federal funding for our roads, bridges, schools, and other important local priorities, it is critically important that Minnesotans participate. Filling out the census form will ensure that Minnesota taxpayers get their fair share of resources and representation.

"This is especially crucial for those in rural communities who are at risk of being undercounted."

Niel Ritchie is executive director of the League of Rural Voters, a Minnesota-based nonprofit working to strengthen rural communities nationwide.