Just 53 questions but so much talk

Census: Radio programs and the Internet provide a forum for many to gripe.

March 25, 2000|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

It's census time again. Time to share with the government a few mundane personal details so that everybody in the land gets counted.

Who could argue? All you have to do is answer some questions.

Well, many people are arguing. They're complaining to Congress, to the census bureau and, of course, to talk radio hosts.

"It's the most intrusive form I've ever seen," said Max Neil Highstein, a Lutherville accountant. "It took me an hour to do my mother's form because I had to go to the tax return for her interest statements, dividend statement, Social Security, property tax information."

"They've already got this stuff in the [IRS] database," he said. "What's the purpose of doing it again?"

What's prompting such griping is the long census form, 53 questions on topics such as how much money you make, what time you leave for work and whether you have toilets in your house. One out of six people receives that form; everyone else gets the short form with seven questions. The long form has been called intrusive, wasteful, unconstitutional, a scheme for increasing the size of government, a scheme for dividing people by race, or a conspiracy to keep participation low so the party in power can manipulate figures to political advantage.

For many people like Highstein, the census is not so much an ideological hazard as it is a pain in the neck. He said he was startled when he saw what his 82-year-old mother, Hilda, got in the mail.

The complaints aren't new. People always gripe about the census, which is conducted every 10 years. (The long form is actually shorter this year than it was in 1990 and is the shortest it's been since 1960, and the questions haven't changed much.)

But this time, there's a different media culture to broadcast the complaints, with Internet gossip and a news cycle measured in an Internet minute. Talk radio shows give people the chance to whine to a mass audience.

"We don't have any reason to think it's more or less serious this time than anytime," said Steven Jost, associate director of communications for the Census Bureau. "Except that there are a few radio talk show hosts who have decided to make it a cause celebre."

Radio hosts bristle at the notion that talk radio is manufacturing the controversy. They say they're airing the issue because that's what people are talking about.

"Ten years ago, there weren't as many talk shows to articulate what the masses are saying off the mike, so it appeared that there wasn't any dissension," said Kent Pavelka, a talk show host in Omaha, Neb., who devoted part of a recent show to the subject.

"Talk shows are all about what people are talking about around the water cooler and the breakfast table."

As soon as the forms began arriving in the mail this month radio listeners around the country heard people skewer the federal government's $6 billion to $7 billion project.

What business is it of the government's, callers wanted to know, whether they have trouble learning, remembering and concentrating; how many bedrooms they have; and how well they speak English?

Radio host Mark Belling of WISN in Milwaukee devoted three separate hour-long segments to the subject, prompted by calls and e-mails to the station. He said he was particularly disturbed by the question that asks people to choose from 18 different racial and ethnic categories. "The government seems determined to Balkanize the nation," he recalls telling his his audience.

Charlie Sykes, a Milwaukee radio host from WTMJ, who devoted several shows to the census, said he thinks the census generated as much reaction as it did largely because people are more concerned about privacy than they were in 1990. "There's a lot of information about them that they can't control, financial and medical information, and they have a lot of anxiety," said Sykes.

Census officials say they aren't trying to be busybodies: Every question on the form is required by a census information law.

The purpose of the 210-year-old census, as required by the Constitution, is to count heads to carve voting districts so people are fairly represented. Other data gathered in the census help the government distribute federal dollars to such programs as Head Start and school lunches for the poor.

Individual forms are confidential, and census workers are subject to a $5,000 fine and five years in prison for any breach.

Beyond the talk show circuit, it's hard to quantify the level of backlash, partly because the level of backlash itself is the subject of some dispute.

A spokeswoman for the congressional subcommittee on the census, led by Republican Rep. Dan Miller of Florida, said the office has received 20 to 30 calls a day about the long form since March 13.

But a spokesman for the subcommittee's ranking Democratic member, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney of New York, said there's no deluge of complaints. Ben Chevat, Maloney's chief of staff, said said he surveyed a number of Democratic members of Congress and found one to 20 calls came to each office in the first week.

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