Tear Up Your Census Form for a Better America

The government is perfectly capable of counting heads in a less-intrusive and more-hygienic way.


If, like me, you've received not one but three mailings from the U.S. Census Bureau proclaiming "Your Response Is Required By Law," you're probably wondering whether to respond, toss the questionnaire in the trash, or fill it with bogus information. We're in good company, since about a third of households plan to ignore the census, according to the government itself.

In the past, I've filled in preposterous answers, then repeated them with a straight face when a harried-looking census field worker knocked on my door (that's a pleasure I'll miss this year, with in-person interviews suspended). It's good fun, it denies potentially dangerous information to a government agency that has a history of misusing the data it collects and, if repeated far and wide, it might spur nosy bureaucrats to try something less intrusive.

Less intrusive would be nice. Census questions, you may have noticed, go a bit beyond the simple head count authorized by the Constitution. Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution specifies an "actual Enumeration … within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct."

There's nothing in there about demanding names, the types of our homes, the nature of our relationships with the people with whom we live, our ethnicity, or the details of our finances (if you were unlucky enough to get the old long form or the modern American Community Survey). That's all just bureaucratic curiosity.

Our answers are supposed to be confidential.

"The Census Bureau cannot release any identifiable information about you, your home, or your business, even to law enforcement agencies. The law ensures that your private data is protected and that your answers cannot be used against you by any government agency or court," the Census Bureau website assures us.

If only that were true. In reality, laws change, and governments use information however they please once they have itsometimes in nasty ways.

"Despite decades of denials, government records confirm that the U.S. Census Bureau provided the U.S. Secret Service with names and addresses of Japanese-Americans during World War II," Scientific American reported in 2007. "The Census Bureau surveys the population every decade with detailed questionnaires but is barred by law from revealing data that could be linked to specific individuals. The Second War Powers Act of 1942 temporarily repealed that protection to assist in the roundup of Japanese-Americans for imprisonment in internment camps in California and six other states during the war."

More recently, "the Census Bureau provided neighborhood data on Arab-Americans to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2002," the article added.

So when the Census Bureau frets that "fewer than seven in ten householders said they intend to fill out the census form," with many Americans citing "privacy concerns, fear of repercussions, and general distrust of government," you're looking at self-inflicted wounds. The Census Bureau worked hard to earn that distrust.

Fortunately, there's a game plan for dealing with a hostile population that refuses to answer nosy questions posed by government workers. Even before the U.S. Census Bureau alienated the public, its Dutch counterpart, Statistics Netherlands, managed to do the same. As a result, people stopped responding and the Dutch government had to find a solution.

"The last traditional census in the Netherlands, in 1971, met with many privacy objections against the collection of integral information about the population living in the Netherlands," according to Eric Schulte Nordholt of Statistics Netherlands, writing in 2015. "This increased the non-response problem, and non-response was expected to be even higher if another traditional census were to be held in the Netherlands."

With questionnaires increasingly ignored, Statistics Netherlands stopped bugging people and switched to using publicly available data along with samples and statistical adjustments.

While head counts in the Netherlands are now less intrusive than the old census, not everything the Dutch do translates to the American context. Statistics Netherlands relies on standardized population registers that don't exist in the United States, and would be difficultjustifiably so, I thinkto impose on a mobile and distrustful population. People worried about the abuse of data collected every 10 years aren't going to want to continuously update their whereabouts with Big Brother.

But government has plenty of information on us as it is, from its own records and from private sources. The Census Bureau is already considering "starting the 2030 Census with an 'in-office' enumeration of the population using existing government administrative records," reveals a 2016 report. Between Social Security and the Internal Revenue Service, 90 percent or more "of the U.S. population could be located."

The Census Bureau would then fill in the gaps as needed. That approach may turn out to be more accurate than a traditional census faced with growing noncompliance and deliberately misleading responses.

As for the interesting questions about finances, ethnicity, and plumbing that the Census Bureau likes to add to the authorized tally… I could point out that the government is only supposed to count us, not interrogate us. But the Census Bureau concedes that most of the information it wants exists in government records, if only it would look.

Figuring out how many Americans there are based on existing administrative records may not only be more accurate than the old-style census, it would likely be a lot cheaper.

"A register-based census costing less than 1 percent of a traditional census is not exceptional," points out Nordholt of Statistics Netherlands. "A traditional census in the Netherlands would cost a few hundred million euros, while with this method it costs 'only' around 1.4 million euros."

Elsewhere, Statistics Netherlands reveals that the total staff required for the 2011 census was 15 people.

A national head-count based on administrative records would not only be less intrusive, cheaper, and closer to constitutional intent than old-style questionnaires; it would also be safer. Census workers would never again have to go door-to-door in a world that will probably retain concerns about contagion even after the COVID-19 pandemic passes.

Was the guy at the last house coughing because he was sick or just to needle an unwelcome visitor? That won't be a concern for bureaucrats working desks rather than pounding pavement.

So, if you're worried at all, toss away that census form or fill it with nonsense with a clear conscience. You're helping to push the feds to count us in a less annoying way.

NEXT: In Dramatic Shift, Trump Tells Nation To Stay at Home Until the End of April

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  1. ” . . . in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.”

    So they can write the laws to allow anything they want to.
    Deal with it.

    1. Much as I hate to admit it, I have to agree that the text does sort of allow a wide range of options.

    2. One way of dealing with it is by criticizing the process and giving BS answers to the intrusive questions.

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    3. Deal with it.

      We are. Through civil disobediance. Or does ‘deal with it’ really just meant ‘submit’?

      If the constitution were changed to say that self-defense was not a human right, how would you ‘deal with it’?

    4. It is my understanding that “…in such manner as they shall by Law direct.” applies to the manner in which they gather the information it doesn’t change the information they are to gather.

  2. If a third of the population plans to ignore the law, how the heck are they gonna enforce it?

    1. Back in 1970, the first national libertarian activist project was to protest the census by refusing to answer or just doing headcount per the constitution (project got a front page article in the WSJ).
      Tens of thousands refused to answer in full or in part. One person, from Hawaii, was fined $25 (which the project reimbursed). Other than that, nada from the Feds.

      1. Was that the first step of the great American libertarian activist march toward relevance, achievement, and effective persuasion?

      2. Conversely, I select every bubble regarding race/sex/ethnicity and/or select “other”-Human-Third Rock from the sun.

        My answers are truthful (go back far enough and there’s all kinds of races and ethnicities in my family tree), but the data gathered is useless.

    2. Selectively and with the full weight of Fedgov so as to make a few examples.

  3. …but is barred by law from revealing data that could be linked to specific individuals.

    El. Oh. El.

  4. Ehhhh, how about no. Lot harder for interested parties to mass fake population concentrations, when they have to rely on data that has to at least attempt to reach everyone. You get small time fraud in the current system, but its balanced out by other small time fraud. You start trying to go the statistic route and people will have the motivation to choose statistical methods that help their favored party.

    1. And an actual count is required by the constitution.
      How about just doing the head count and leaving it at that?

    2. You start trying to go the statistic route and people will have the motivation to choose statistical methods that help their favored party.

      Because nobody enacted healthcare policy based on the census numbers and then changed the way the census was conducted specifically to obfuscate any outcomes as the result of healthcare policy changes?

    3. Illocust,

      Surely nobody has ever adjusted a statistical computer model to match their preferred outcome? That just can’t happen!

  5. If you answer, I suggest the racial question be answered “Human.”
    (If that applies to you, of course.)

    1. For jury duty recently, I filled in “human/mixed” for that space. I didn’t get yelled at or questioned, but didn’t get picked as a juror, either, which was fine by me!

      I was a compliant wussy, and recently filled the on-line census form for our family… You can check off “other” for race. Then fill in the blank. We are all “mixed” in my family! Born in America, so Native American… Scientists says modern “homo sapiens” comes mostly from Africa, so we are also African-Americans… Neanderthal genes and Denisovan genes, and all, so you get the picture…

      1. So you’re saying you’re a mixed homo African-American ?

      2. I found the racial part surprisingly intrusive. Race wasn’t enough, they also want you to expound on your ethnicity. How many white Americans even know which European countries their ancestors came from? Other than the origin of your last name, you most likely have idea.

        1. “Hey our buddies @23&Me will be happy to help you find out if only you send them your dna …”

        2. People don’t have it perfect, but I know I’m mostly German, some English and Scottish, Scandinavian, Native American, and a bit o’ Spanish. That was all stuff I learned growing up… And all came out about as expected with a DNA test I took.

          The racial data more generally is useful info… How else are we white Americans supposed to know when we can officially claim minority status and start getting special treatment from the Democrats like all the other minorities???

          LOL That’s not how it works obviously! White people are always evil!

      3. I chose to identify as Noldor

      4. Did they ask you why you eat shit?

    2. I also put “Human” for my wife and I. I should have put Hobbit. 🙂

    3. Every census form I have filled out with “Native American” as ethnicity. I was born in America, as was my father, and his father, and his father. We are ALL native Americans.

      Interestingly, my son was the ONLY native American in his school system.

  6. There were 10 pages. Didn’t ask much. Address, date of birth and race. I put English.

  7. Personalized ad appears: “Big tech selling my dataaaaa!” ????

    US Census form arrives: “Yesssss my preciousssss….” ????

    Same people.

    1. “Same people.”

      Really? Google agent shows up with gun?

    2. I will never understand why Glibertarians are fine with being assfucked and exploited and tracked as long as it’s not the Gubmint doing it. You’re all fucking pathetic

      1. The worst thing a corporation can do is try to sell me stuff.

        The worst thing government can do is kill me.

        See the difference?

        1. That is a comprehensively stupid assertion.

          1. No Arty, it’s factual, which is why you’re such a shitrag.

        2. Corporations can do a lot more than try to sell you stuff. They can violate all kinds of your rights in ways you might not be keen on. They can also rat out ALL that info to the government too! So being wary of Google IS being wary of the government.

      2. “I will never understand why Glibertarians are fine with being assfucked and exploited and tracked as long as it’s not the Gubmint doing it.”

        I’ll never understand why fucking lefty ignoramuses are so proud of their imbecility that they brag about it in public.

      3. I don’t understand why you’re fine with it *because* its the government doing it.

  8. Given that most adult Americans struggle with basic math, we should not be surprised that they (and their fearless leaders) are beyond ignorance of statistics.

    Those who can do stats know that we do not need an expensive and intrusive physical counting to determine the population nationally and by state with sufficient precision to allocate seats in Congress.

    1. And what do we check your statistical conclusions against? Your word? See “climate change statistics.”

  9. Thirty years ago, the census questions were so invasive, I only answered the ones I considered Constitutionally relevant. A census worker visited me a few weeks later and tried to get me to answer more. I said: “Prosecute me” and shut the door in his face.

    This year, however, I filled out the census online in less than 5 minutes. Outside of traditional questions like age, number of persons in the house, the only illegitimate (IMO) question it asked was if I owned my home outright or if it had a mortgage.

    It also asked, as always, what my race is. I said ‘other’ and typed in ‘human being’.

    1. Ten years ago they knocked on my door. I told them I had 8 million illegal aliens living in my basement.

      I’ve never filled out a census form in my life.

    2. A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.

    3. I tried to answer the online one, but it wouldnt let me submit it with only answering how many citizens lived here. That is the only relevant question.

  10. Another perspective: what is the patriotic duty of citizens in a country founded on individual liberty?

    A) Compliance with demands from the state.

    B) Defiance.

    C) Shut up, I’m watching the game (or a rerun from last year).

    1. D) Go away, I’m playing Doom and can’t pause right now

  11. “…Our answers are supposed to be confidential…”

    I needed a laugh this morning. Thanks.

  12. When I used to live in Tijuana, the government conducted a census in the barrio by flying overhead, taking photos, and then using the University to calculate probable population densities based on grids. They picked representative grids and surrounded them with Federales at about 2 in the morning. Census workers counted everyone in the grid. They then did the math.

  13. How many decent adults are interested in the thinking of anti-social malcontents these days?

    Does anyone think something like this is going to make the opinions of disaffected cranks at the societal fringe more popular? (Other than with eighth-grade misfits?)

    Carry on, clingers. With even less self-awareness and persuasiveness than usual, apparently.

    1. Yeah, sounds like an edgy teen wrote this article. What trash.

    2. “How many decent adults are interested in the thinking of anti-social malcontents these days?”

      Dunno. You just got here, so we haven’t had a chance to decide who is interested in your continuing pile of shit.

      1. None. None of us are interested in Kuckland’s shit. Except maybe Squirrel, but he’s not a decent adult.

    3. “Malcontents”? Ok, boomer.

      You’re useless, old man.

      1. I am part of the group that makes the rules you follow and shapes society to thwart your preferences.

        That probably explains your resentment and aimless anger. It does not explain your bigotry and backwardness, though.

        I’ll dismiss your opinion and respect the judgment of people who pay me more for an hour’s work than you make in a few days.

        1. You’ve joined the Trump administration?

          Well, that was unexpected, but welcome aboard the Trump Train!
          Woot! Woot!

  14. I have always just shredded whatever snail mail I get from the census, or whatever they hang on my doorknob. When a person shows up and says I didn’t send it in, I say I did, then complain that it’s supposed to be confidential, so what makes them think I didn’t, and isn’t it a felony to send in two forms, like voting twice? They get flustered and don’t know enough to argue, and eventually leave. I suspect they just fill in whatever they want.

    1. Oooh. Nice idea!

  15. My libertopia eliminates any need for a census by all legislators proxying however many votes they won in the election. This also has the nice side benefit of making it worthwhile to vote against incumbents, since you can at least reduce their influence.

    I’d also let any property owner on the border of a different district, or jurisdiction, for that matter, switch districts and jursidictions.

  16. Through most of my adult life the census has always been a controversial things and I have always failed to understand why. We so freely hand over information to corporations and yet are so fearful of the government. I you use the internet, or a credit card, subscribe to a magazine, or have gotten your DNR analyzed, their is probably little in your life that is really private. Yes the author is correct that the government could get all the data it needs from a combination of government records and data businesses sell. So here an experiment, look over the census questions, answers those questions that you believe someone in the public already has the answers to, and then count how many are left unanswered. The unanswered question are the only privacy you may have left. In the modern world that is likely very small.

    1. Kroger may know my grocery habits but they don’t send armed men to kick down doors. Neither does Google or Amazon. If Fedgov wants to investigate me they can get a fucking warrant.

      And the census is unnecessary since the population data is on the irs 1040’s.

      1. Not everyone pays taxes.

        With that being said, I would feel more comfortable if the government simply counted heads not tried to get more personal info. I dont give that more personal info but a great many do.

      2. The assumption here is that businesses are benign and the government is not, but is that true. The government may be kicking in your door to evict you because your bank foreclosed the mortgage when it did like the data it was getting about you.
        I don’t find it logical to hand over information freely to businesses but then say I don’t want the government to know. What I see the author saying here is that the government should be more like businesses. Don’t just ask for the information directly, rather ask for the information indirectly. So the government doesn’t ask directly do you have a mortgage, instead it creates a App to provide you mortgage information and then records all the information when you sign up. You could just do this for all the census questions.

      3. Every bit of information Kroger or Google has on you the government can have on you at their request.

        THAT is one of the main reasons I don’t like corporate information gathering. I also don’t like them knowing some shit just on principle, because it’s creepy.

    2. Moderation4ever
      March.30.2020 at 1:19 pm
      “Through most of my adult life the census has always been a controversial things and I have always failed to understand why. We so freely hand over information to corporations and yet are so fearful of the government.”

      I’ll never understand why fucking lefty ignoramuses are so proud of their imbecility that they brag about it in public.

  17. or have gotten your DNR analyzed

    I don’t have a DNR. And it’s not a question of what information about me is out there.

  18. The Census is our best bet to remove illegals, so I’m going to answer as much as possible. I’ll worry about misuse of my information after the illegals are gone and integrity is restored to our elections, representation in HoR and EC, etc.

    1. Yup. Tuccille advocates real people who visit unreason.com not complete their Census. Who would that hurt in the end?

      Blue states are all going to claim as many people as they can, so Red state need to claim everyone they can too.

      When I was stationed in Commifornia, I did not complete my Census to prevent Taxifornia from getting additional persons counted.

      1. Blue and red are both shit, so fuck them both.

      2. Reason Then:
        Asking a citizenship question is a totally racist attempt to limit electoral representation of states with high populations of The Superior Americans From Abroad.

        Reason Now:
        Tear up that Big Brother interrogation form! Woot! Woot! That’ll stick it to The Man!

  19. FYI – United States Code, Title 13 (Census), Chapter 7 (Offenses and Penalties), SubChapter II, if you’re over 18 and refuse to answer all or part of the census, you can be fined up to $100. If you give false answers, you’re subject to a fine of up to $500. If you offer suggestions or information with the “intent to cause inaccurate enumeration of population,” you are subject to a fine of up to $1,000, up to a year in prison, or both.

  20. Ten years ago, I only answered the basics of how many people lived at my address. Then I dodged the census workers that showed up multiple times to try to get more answers.

    This time, I answered that the address is vacant, and I’m living outside the country. Seems like the best bet to avoid them showing up this time.

    Also, I live in a leftist state that I don’t want to see getting any more congressional representation, electoral college votes, or federal funding for anything.

    I’ll answer the basic enumeration questions next time…from New Hampshire.

    1. The fact that I’m in a commie state is the only reason I am considering not answering honestly.

  21. Congress demands most of this more detailed information collected by the census folks. Much of it is useful for justifying funding. Some not so much.
    Still why “spite your face by cutting off your nose”. Harassing a census employee proves nothing. Go to the source, Congress.

    1. Oh, you mean the congress that just finished voting unanimously to fuck all of us financially and give over $4 trillion to the richest people and corporations in the country, and all we get is $1,200 of “we think you’re a dumb shit so we can buy you off with some crumbs while we steal you blind” money. (And for 98% of the people in the USA, they are probably correct.)

      THAT congress?

      What country do you live in?

  22. I chuckled when they asked for my phone number, email address, and age. I entered the number of adults amd children. My race doesn’t matter for Congressional representation.

    I got the long form last time. Answered the same info. The census taker bugged the hell out of my neighbors (who I don’t know) over and over. I am home a few days a month normally…

  23. As far as I’m concerned they have the “Patriot Act” and plenty of other ways to violate our privacy and spy on people. Therefore you have your census info and mines in the garbage.

  24. How much is spent on the mailings? They’ve sent me 4 mailings over the past few weeks. I’ve been so damn busy with overtime at work that I have yet to get to it. Last time it was a colossal pain in the ass with too many intrusive questions that don’t matter for the census. But there’s a nice “muh National Parks” battle cry on the letters.

  25. For anyone who cares at all about the Constitution, representative government, and the rule of law in the US, the census is literally in the Constitution and determines electoral representation.

    Old fashioned folks, the kind that will wear a mask in public during a pandemic to prevent infecting *others*, might see the census as a legitimate civic duty.

    I know it’s not nearly as saintly or glamorous as shrieking “Racist!” at everyone, but it’s something even mutes can do, and I applaud them in playing the tiny part they can.

  26. Reading various articles about how people get violated freedom-wise, I will say that the census is one of my irritations. I got the thing in the mail and made the mistake of getting online to keep them away from my home. I should have just ripped it up. I gave them the info they otherwise would not have had, and have no reason to have.

    I can’t go without saying what I consider the number 1 violation, and that is a jury summons and the related process. My answer is NO (including to voir dire) and will never change, and does not need a “reason” that someone else has standard for as far as validity. The fact that terrorist threats in that system are accepted and expected is clear proof that we are indeed owned and not free.

    Stay-at-home coronavirus mandates do not violate me one bit. But everyone has the right to determine just what violates him.

  27. Is tearing up the form really the best you can do? It makes more sense and saves more money eliminating the census altogether. Amend the constitution. Amend away the post office too. Save us from constitutionally protected jack booted thugs and postal clerks.

    1. Yes, tearing up paper is something we actually can do. Amending the constitution is damn near impossible.

  28. Of all the things the government wastes money on, and screws people over on, I just don’t see why anybody gets pissed about the census.

    I haven’t filled mine out yet, but I bet there are only a couple questions at most that might be TMI. It is useful to know the ethnicity, income, and other demographics of the population. This is stuff that is good for the government to know, AND for the population to know.

    All that demographic data illustrates the reasons behind a lot of issues and provides insights. Why is Texas about to go blue? Well, it ain’t because of Americans turning into commies, it’s all the illegal immigrants and their citizen anchor babies. Is Mississippi a super backwards/poor state that mooches off others in welfare? Technically yes, but only because it has an ultra high black population, whites there do fine economically. School test scores plummeting in much of California? It’s a change in the demographics, fewer middle class white people as a percentage of population, and not enough affluent white and Asian immigrants to make up for the shift towards low scoring Hispanic students in most of the state… Bay area schools doing great still, because they’re all rich whites/Asians.

    Head in the sand libertarians don’t like this kind of data, but it is true and useful data for analyzing trends and understanding how the real world works… Like it or not.

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