Where Have I Heard This Before? (or, History Repeats Itself)

by Terri Ann LowenthalTerri Ann Lowenthal

So where do we go from here, census stakeholders? Let’s take stock.

As I reported in my last blog post, nearly a dozen House members think it’s a good idea to do away with every survey and census — except the once-a-decade population count — the U.S. Census Bureau conducts. With a few legislative votes and the stroke of a president’s pen, they would leave the world’s greatest democracy with virtually no useful information on which to base prudent decisions and with which to hold elected officials (like themselves) accountable.

Some observers are understandably shocked — shocked! — at the absurdity of such a proposal. Whatever could the proponents be thinking?

According to a press release, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC), is acting on behalf the many annoyed constituents who believe the surveys are “invasive.” Many? Really??? Given the small sample size of non-census surveys, only a tiny fraction of the congressman’s constituents would ever be asked to fill one out. While the congressman acknowledges the need for “some” economic data, he is confident there are other ways to gather it that don’t involve “harassing people” or “invading their privacy.” “Americans are tired of too much government meddling in their daily lives,” Rep. Duncan assures us. (Except, I’m sure, when potholes need filling, a doctor’s visit is paid for through Medicare or Medicaid, classrooms are too crowded, or they really would like a new senior center close to public transportation.)

This all sounds vaguely familiar. In fact, it sounds like an effort to up-end the census (and related American Community Survey, which used to be the census long form)… circa 1970.

You see, that’s when a group of young conservatives, in a mailing to (presumably) other conservatives, wrote: “The citizen’s right of privacy is directly violated when the federal government attempts to force us to answer questions that are none of the government’s business… The point is not what questions are being asked,” the authors declared, “but that a federal agency dares to institute a process that will pry into the core of our individual lives.” They also organized anti-census demonstrations at federal buildings.

And they might have stirred every limited-government soul to dodge the census, except that one very notable conservative decided to call their bluff. Renowned columnist James J. Kilpatrick, himself a recipient of the anti-census diatribe, countered the “privacy” argument in an op-ed (Washington Evening Star, 2/22/70; syndicated elsewhere):

“Is it true that such information is ‘none of the government’s business?’ On the contrary, such information is of the first importance to government. How else can public policies be fashioned wisely? Where should schools be built, and water lines laid, and parks established? How many people will be using what highways and airports when? The economic and demographic information coming from confidential Census reports… is vital to every public and private undertaking that rests upon a knowledge of what our country is.”

There’s something else going on here aside from vague concerns about “privacy.” In the required “Statement of Constitutional Authority,” here’s what Rep. Duncan submitted in support of H.R. 1638:

“Article I Section 2 notes the need for an Enumeration of the people necessary for the apportionment of Congressional districts. That is the true purpose of the Census Bureau. This legislation seeks to return the Census Bureau to the Constitutional intent of the Founding Fathers by eliminating non-Constitutional additional enumerations that the Bureau undertakes today.”

So there we have it. The sponsors believe that the federal government does not have the authority to gather information from the people in order to produce statistics that guide fiscal and social policy-making and the allocation of government resources. Funny, this also rings a bell; the 1970 protesters labeled the census a “violat[ion] [of] our rights under the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Ninth Amendments to the Constitution.”

Not so, states’ rights advocate Kilpatrick shot back. Not only do legislators have broad authority with regard to census-taking (i.e. “in such manner as they shall by Law direct”), the columnist said, they have the power to regulate commerce. “Nothing in the Constitution prohibits the Congress from combining its powers in useful ways. Thus a Census question on the houses we own, and the plumbing and heating in them, may not relate narrowly to ‘enumeration,’ but it relates reasonably to commerce — and it scarcely reaches ‘the core of our individual lives’ [quoting the anti-census mailing he received]. The same thing is true of questions relating to our jobs and how we get to them.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself, Jim, though heaven knows I’ve tried.

Having defended the need for informed decision-making (is there any other worthwhile kind in a democracy?), I fully understand why survey recipients might view the questions as odd, at best, or maybe nonsensical or even intrusive. The Census Bureau has a responsibility, too, to explain clearly the purpose of questions to households fortunate enough (smile) to receive one, as well as to limit follow-up calls and door-knocks to a reasonable number for people who clearly don’t want to be bothered. Kudos to the agency for finally establishing a Respondent Advocate for Household Surveys, to be the ears and voice for people wondering what the heck the government really wants to know (e.g. not when you leave the house, but how many cars are on the road during rush hour!) and advise the Census Bureau on how to make surveys more user-friendly.

Now, if only our elected officials would demonstrate some leadership and help illuminate the need for objective, reliable data, instead of pretending we can live in a society that doesn’t even calculate the unemployment rate!

4 responses to “Where Have I Heard This Before? (or, History Repeats Itself)

  1. Tom Gallagher

    Nice work … T. Gallagher & P. Duggan

  2. “Conservatives” aren’t always against the Census. When Census statistics are useful in “proving” whatever these self professed conservatives are on about, they have no problem in citing those statistics. The Census is attacked by these same people when statistics provided by the Census Bureau don’t jibe with their world view.

    To illustrate the above, here’s an example of a conservative anti-big government type using big government Census data to rant against big government — http://cnsnews.com/blog/terence-p-jeffrey/obamas-america-will-become-detroit

    The solution is clear. If the Census Bureau agreed to be “patriotic” and provide data that “proves” that Koch Brothers and the Tea-Party are correct about everything, all would be well. Not only would the Census Bureau’s budget be restored, it would be doubled. Unfortunately, the Census Bureau insists on providing a snapshot of the world as it really is, in other words, the Census Bureau is run by leftists who hate America.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Mark. One thing we can say with certainty (which you aptly noted): The Census Bureau gathers and reports objective data that decision-makers need. It’s up to our elected officials to use those data in whatever way they believe serves the country. That’s how a democracy works: transparency!