Privacy

Nosy Prewitt

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I recently got a letter from Kenneth Prewitt, who runs the Bureau of the Census. "Please be as accurate and complete as you can in filling out your census form," he writes.

The "please" implies that I have a choice, that I'd be doing Ken a favor by responding to his questionnaire. This is a bit misleading, since, as he notes, "Title 13 of the United States Code…requires that you answer these questions."

Ken is too tactful to say so, but the law actually provides for a $100 fine if I decline to satisfy his curiosity. I can be fined $500 if I make stuff up–if I lie about my age, say, or claim to be a Native Hawaiian.

But Ken doesn't mention the fines. In its initial overture, at least, the Census Bureau is emphasizing the carrot rather than the stick. The census form I received features cheerful assurances such as, "Your answers are important! Every person in the Census counts."

A document on the bureau's Web site is similarly upbeat. "Everybody Is Number One in the Census," it declares. "Participating in the census is in everyone's best interest."

How so? Well, you might have thought the census had something to do with a distant, bloated national government. But it's actually all about "community," as the census form explains:

* "Census information helps your community get financial assistance for roads, hospitals, schools, and more."

* "Information about children helps your community plan for child care, education, and recreation."

* "Knowing about age, sex, and race helps your community better meet the needs of everyone."

* "Your answers help your community plan for the future."

If, like most people, you received the "short form," you may be wondering why "your community" cares about the color of your skin or why it needs to know whether you rent or own your home. If you were lucky enough to get the "long form," which was sent to about one in six households, you have even more reason to be puzzled.

The long form has 53 questions, many of which are divided into parts. Among other things, it asks about your marital status, your ethnic background, your education, your job, your income, your mortgage, the value of your home, your expenses, and the equipment in your bathrooms and kitchens.

The government also wants to know whether you own a car, what time you leave for work, and how you get there. It asks if you have trouble bathing, getting dressed, or remembering things.

Oddly, the form does not ask about incontinence or impotence. Probably an oversight.

When you see how nosy the Census Bureau is, you start to understand why it is bending over backward to justify its work. "The Census Bureau recognizes," its Web site says, "that different segments of the population respond in different ways and with different levels of trust and willingness to participate in the census."

Some segments of the population respond this way: "Leave me alone. Mind your own damned business."

Last time around, 35 percent of households neglected, forgot, or refused to fill out the questionnaires, prompting followup calls or visits by census workers. It's doubtful that Americans have become more trusting of their government or less concerned about their privacy in the decade since then.

As part of its effort to boost the response rate, the bureau offers a 100-page brief in defense of the census. It begins by acknowledging that people may wonder why today's census is so much more intrusive than the "actual enumeration" authorized by the Constitution for the purpose of apportioning representatives.

"The short answer is that the principle of accuracy, which was the basis for establishing the census in 1790, still holds true today," the bureau says. "Just as the Founding Fathers sought an accurate way of distributing the House seats, so too have modern legislators turned to the decennial census as the primary basis for an accurate distribution of fiscal resources."

In other words, never mind whether the census is constitutional; it's useful. The rest of the document explains how, laying out a long list of boondoggles, meddling regulations, and income redistribution schemes that rely on information from the census.

Like the census itself (once you get past the "enumeration" part), these programs are not authorized by the Constitution. All in all, the Census Bureau makes a pretty persuasive case–against participating in the census.