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U.S.: Census Again Stirs Controversy

  • Andrew Tully

The U.S. government is counting its residents as it does every decade. Lately, census takers want increasingly more information from households. RFE/RL's Andrew F. Tully reports that many critics find these questions intrusive -- and potentially dangerous.

Washington, 29 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- At the end of each decade, the U.S. government conducts a census of its people. And as with previous population counts, critics of the process are abundant.

The first U.S. census was conducted in 1790, a year after the constitution was ratified. The purpose of the count, as specified by the Constitution is to determine how many members would serve in Congress.

There are two senators from each U.S. state, regardless of population. But a state's delegation to the House of Representatives is based on population. Hence the census.

Since those early years, however, the census has become a general demographic tool for the federal government. Today, the Census Bureau collects data about individuals' racial and ethnic background, their spending habits, whether they work, how they commute -- even whether a member of a household has trouble bathing.

Trouble bathing?

Odd -- and intrusive -- as that sounds, the question has a great demographic value, according to Neil Tillman, a spokesman for the Census Bureau. He says this question helps the government learn where there may be geographical concentrations of disabled people so it can allocate funds for the disabled more efficiently. Another example Tillman cited was the question on commuting habits.

"Transportation planners need that data in order to plan the nation's highway needs -- whether or not you need a mass transit system, whether or not you widen a road or build a bridge. All of that information is taken into account when transportation planners look at existing systems and decide how to modify them."

But this kind of "redistribution of wealth" is not the kind of power the constitution gave to the Census Bureau, or any other government agency, according to Edward Hudgins, a political analyst in Washington who writes extensively on government regulatory issues. Hudgins told RFE/RL that it is more efficient and less intrusive for the government to tax citizens less and let them make their own decisions on how to spend the money they keep.

"This is not the proper function of government. And, of course, 50 years ago, the federal government only took about 5 percent of the average family's income, compared to 25 percent today. So families had more control over their own expenditures and less need to ransom back their own income from Washington by filling out census forms."

There is also the fear that the information gathered by the census could be used against citizens. A classic example of such abuse occurred in 1942 -- at the height of World War II -- when the Census Bureau directed the U.S. Army to Americans of Japanese descent so they could be sent to internment camps. The president at the time, Franklin Roosevelt, signed a decree requiring the internment of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast because they were thought to be more loyal to Japan.

Tillman, the Census Bureau spokesman, told RFE/RL that all information gathered in the census is absolutely confidential, even if it shows evidence of lawbreaking, like illegal immigration.

"We don't share that information, not even with other agencies in the federal government. So our immigration people, our FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation, our IRS [tax agency] cannot get to that information. Nor do they try, usually, because they understand this, that the information has to be kept private, that we cannot disclose that information, and -- as I said -- not even to the president."

Still, Tillman says, many census forms that are mailed to households across the U.S. are not returned. Historically, only about 60 percent of the mail-in census forms are returned.

Most often, Tillman says, people simply forget to file the forms, or think their spouses posted them, or they were too busy to respond. But he acknowledges that many people are suspicious of government intrusion. He said this is particularly true of people living in the U.S. illegally.

Hudgins says Americans have every right to be leery of their government. He says there have been too many instances of people working for the Internal Revenue Service or the FBI who have access to embarrassing and even incriminating information about citizens and sell them to the individuals' enemies.

"As government becomes larger, as government's appetite is whetted more and more to control people, I think the information becomes much less secure."

Another contentious issue is precisely how the American population should be counted. The administration of President Bill Clinton wants to use "sampling." By sampling, the bureau would directly count only some residents of a region, then use statistical models to deduce the entire population of that region. Such methods have been highly accurate -- and economical -- for news organizations and businesses conducting polls.

But Clinton's opponents in Congress say such methods are not accurate. And they argue that the Constitution demands a one-by-one enumeration of the population. The U.S. Supreme Court, the highest court in the country, eventually ruled that the population of each state must be determined by enumeration, not by sampling.

Some observers say the opponents of sampling -- most are members of the Republican Party -- fear that this method would count more members of minority groups and the poor -- people who have historically supported the Democratic Party. If that is so, then the census could mean more members for the House of Representatives in states with higher percentages of Democrats.

But then it might not. In 1993, the Republicans unsuccessfully opposed a proposal to allow citizens to register to vote at their local motor vehicle offices at the same time they were renewing their drivers' licenses or auto registrations. But during the first year that the law was in effect, more Republicans registered to vote at their motor vehicle offices.

Meanwhile, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday that, during the first two weeks of the census, more than 40 percent of those who received questionnaires had mailed the forms back to the government. The bureau did not say whether this rate of response was high or low.