Debra Saunders / June 4, 2009

Headcount Follies

If you see the federal government as a benign force that seeks only to make your life better, then the questions in the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey may not bother you. But if you have a smidgen of doubt, or if you value your privacy, you probably aren’t going to like some of Uncle Sam’s invasive queries.

Like: What is your race? Your personal ancestry or ethnic origin? How many rooms are in your home? Is anyone at home deaf or hard of hearing? Does anyone at home “because of a physical, mental, or emotional condition” have “serious difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions?”

Trouble walking or climbing stairs? Difficulty dressing or bathing? Or, “because of a physical, mental or emotional condition,” does anyone at your home have difficulty “doing errands alone such as visiting a doctor’s office or shopping?”

All I could think of as I read the questionnaire – which is sent to some 250,000 addresses each month to keep census data current – was: Wait until talk radio gets a hold of this baby. These questions punch practically every hot button in the paranoid person’s arsenal (although the survey did not ask how often respondents have sex – which shows the Viagra lobby has its limits).

Listeners unhappy with President Obama’s expansion of federal power cannot be expected to savor opening the mail to find a questionnaire peppered with highly personal questions – and by the way, the U.S. Census Bureau says it is a federal crime not to respond. If you don’t answer, Uncle Sam can fine you up to $5,000. It’s as if the government is telling you: Trust us with your personal information. Or else.

They even tell you that you can’t put slashes, European style, through your 7s. There is some good news. “I’d come visit you in jail,” Chapman University law professor and GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Campbell quipped when I called to ask him about the constitutional issues. “Courageous columnist goes to jail rather than have privacy invaded.”

Courageous? Not so fast, professor. As it turns out, this survey is not proof of Obama Overreach. The 2000 census asked essentially the same questions – on race, ancestry, even the physical, mental or emotional conditions.

Census Bureau public information officer Shelly Lowe wants you to know that while you may be reluctant to share personal information with a faceless form, the bureau has strict rules safeguarding individual privacy. Lowe called the bureau “the Fort Knox of data.” Any employee who for some reason broke the confidentiality rules could face jail time.

The purpose of the census is to aggregate data so Washington can figure out where to distribute your dollars, not to peek in your underwear drawer.

As for the “mandatory” answers and possible fine of up to $5,000 – to Lowe’s knowledge, no American ever has been fined, even though only 67 percent of Americans participated in the 2000 census. “We do not want to be in the enforcement business,” she told me.

That’s good to know because a lot of Americans don’t want to answer, for example, the race question. Campbell opined, “On the merits of it, I think we should have a colorblind society. I think asking people their race is repulsive.”

Then there’s the libertarian argument, voiced by Hoover Institution legal solon Richard Epstein: “If you’re a minimal-state (government) person, you don’t want the government to have money to run a set of programs that it should not run at all.”

The Constitution – Article 1, Sect. 2 – mandates an every-10-years census, but the language calls for an “enumeration” for drawing congressional districts – not a Facebook page. Yet even the first census taken in 1790 did not simply count heads; it differentiated between male and female, free and slave.

Some respondents list their race as “American” – a statement in itself. There’s an argument to be made that choosing not to answer keeps you out of the head count. Then you only hurt yourself and undercut your representation in Congress.

Alas, the Census Bureau does not help itself by making the long form so complicated. It’s supposed to be a headcount, not a headache.


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