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
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
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
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.