Census numbers game

April 02, 2000|By Jeff Jacoby

PUBLISHER'S Clearinghouse promotes its sweepstakes as a way to win lots of free money. The federal government promotes the U.S. Census in exactly the same way.

"When you don't fill out Census 2000," read the full-page ads taken out by the Census Bureau, "your community could miss out on its fair share of billions of dollars in federal funds."

"An accurate census is important," says the postcard mailed by the Census Bureau to every home that received a census form, "to ensure that all communities get their fair share of government funding."

"We use the census," the Census Bureau's director, Kenneth Prewitt, tells a talk-show host on NPR, "in order to take tax dollars and bring them back to the communities in the way of Head Start programs, transportation programs, health programs, veterans' programs, housing subsidies. -- You actually bring money back to the community using the census data."

In op-ed columns, on its Web site, through its publicists, the Census Bureau hammers home one message: Cooperate with the census so you can get more money. You'd never guess from this naked appeal to greed that according to the Constitution -- Article I, Section 2 -- the only proper use of census data is the apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives.

Down to brass tacks

To be sure, in the letter that accompanied each census questionnaire, Mr. Prewitt did acknowledge, briefly, that the census is used to calculate "the number of representatives each state has in Congress." But then he got down to business:

"The second reason may be more important to you and your community. The amount of government money your neighborhood receives depends on your answers. That money gets used for schools, employment services, housing assistance, roads, services for children and the elderly, and many other local needs." In short, Joe and Jane Citizen, don't fill out the census in order to be properly represented or to satisfy the Constitution. Fill it out because it can mean cash in your pockets.

This is a far cry from "Ask not what your country can do for you."

Critics of the census have focused on the intrusiveness of the questions, especially the ones on the long form sent to one household in six. "Does this person speak a language other than English at home?" "Where did this person live 5 years ago?" "What time did this person usually leave home to go to work last week?" "What was this person's total income in 1999?"

Washington is curious about so many things: Whether you have trouble dressing or bathing. The year your house was built. Whether you have flush toilets and indoor plumbing. The size of your electric bill. But what gives it the right to ask such questions? The Constitution says we must agree to be counted. Where does it say, or even imply, that we must tell a federal employee the amount of our monthly rent or mortgage payment?

We ask these questions, the Census Bureau explains, because a myriad of federal programs rely on the answers. But that begs the question. If Washington has no constitutional authority to ask the questions, it presumably had no authority to create the programs to begin with.

A federal case

That is an argument about federalism -- something most Americans never think about. How many of them know that the Bill of Rights restricts the federal government to just those powers delegated by the Constitution? Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, but we have not been very vigilant about keeping the government in its place.

We have forgotten that we have the right to say to Washington: None of your business.

Soothingly, census officials promise that none of the personal information you supply will be shared with anyone else. "Before anyone inside the Census Bureau sees your completed questionnaire," an essay on the bureau's Web site declares, "they must first be sworn to secrecy." Why, not even the president himself has access to private census data. "There are three certainties in life -- death, taxes, and the continuation of the Census Bureau's proud tradition of keeping information it collects about individuals strictly private."

But that "proud tradition" has had ugly lapses. The New York Times reported on March 17 that "the Census Bureau was deeply involved in the roundup and internment of Japanese-Americans (during) World War II." All disclosures to the government are subject to abuse. In recent years, hundreds of IRS agents have been caught pawing through the tax returns of celebrities and acquaintances. Hackers have crashed the Social Security Web site and rifled private financial records. Some 900 FBI files on leading Republicans ended up in the Clinton White House.

Ah, but the Census Bureau doesn't want you to think about such things. It wants you think instead about how much money the government will toss your way if you'll only answer a lot of nosy questions.

Selling the census as an invitation to pig out at the federal trough is cheap and unworthy. It isn't even honest. The free money that Washington dangles as bait isn't free at all; it came out of our own pockets in the first place. Say what you like about Publisher's Clearinghouse, at least it gives away its own money.

Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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