A head count? Or an invasion?

Comment

April 02, 2000|By MIKE BURNS

ARE you married to the person who shares your home? Do your parents babysit your kids? Do you have indoor plumbing? Is your child physically handicapped or mentally retarded?

What is your house worth, how big is it and do you own it? How much do you pay for homeowners insurance? How much did you make in the stock market last year? What is your work history?

Carroll countians and 120 million other Americans across the country are being assaulted by intrusive questions such as these by the much-criticized U.S. Census Bureau, which is spending over $170 million of taxpayer money to sell and sugarcoat the notoriously inaccurate decennial inquisition.

You've seen the dire warnings about the consequences of not returning the census form. How population counts of counties and states are essential for government funding decisions and programs. How money for federal disaster areas will be determined by the local head count. How nosy feds need your personal data for "planning."

We've come a long way since the 1790 census, required by the Constitution for purposes of allocating congressional representation.

This 21st national census is liberally pitched as not only a legal obligation of every household but essential to keep the wheels of government grinding. About 100 programs are based in part on the census population data, the bureau says. Some $180 billion in federal spending is partly determined by census numbers.

Yet the fact is that government programs, criteria and funding change from year to year. They don't stay frozen in the census snapshot of 2000. They rely on new surveys and estimates.

Carroll County isn't going to build a new school based on the 2000 census data: it demands more timely statistics. Road improvements are based on actual traffic counts, not on census extrapolations.

Any person receiving government benefits won't have them cut off or reduced simply because the head count in his census block went up or down since 1990.

If a hurricane devastates Florida or the Midwest is under floodwaters, the federal emergency relief to victims is not going to be limited by the census numbers.

Besides, many of the federal programs use block grants to the states, which have wide discretion as to where and how to use these billions of dollars. Whether you are included in your census tract or not may be largely irrelevant to these funding decisions; some programs give more money to areas that actually lose population.

Many of the questions asked by the $6 billion 2000 census are not tied to the direct legitimate needs of the government.

They are asked for the direct benefit of powerful private business organizations, for local developers and multinational marketers.

The biggest boosters of the census, and those detailed personal questions, are such organizations as the Chamber of Commerce, the National Board of Realtors and the computer data-base companies that massage the answers for resale.

At this point, let it be emphasized that the law requires you to complete and return the form and to answer truthfully. Penalties of $100 and $500 can be levied. All questions are authorized by law, regardless of who are the principal beneficiaries of such information. (Never mind that the bureau's claim to accuracy was deflated when it improperly addressed 120 million letters this spring.)

When President Reagan killed a bill requiring extremely detailed racial data on the 1990 census form, the bureau did it anyway. And when the Supreme Court last year told the bureau it must conduct an actual head count of residents for purposes of electoral representation, the bureau said it would go ahead with its dubious system of "sampling" for all the other questions.

The Census Bureau says all information is confidential, at least for 72 years. Employees who disclose personal information from the forms face fines and jail time. Of course, the Internal Revenue Service claims the same kind of privacy protections, yet cases repeatedly surface of abuses in that agency.

Is there proof that confidential census information has been misused? Critics point to the blatant use of such data to identify Japanese-Americans for internment during World War II.

But further, less widespread breaches also seem likely when one considers the army of temporary employees hired to conduct the census. The agency's recruitment targets include college students and welfare recipients (who don't lose their benefits by working) rather than federal agency employees with a real job at stake.

"Only" 20 million families will be asked to fill out the long census form. That's 53 questions, some of which require multiple-part answers. If you have six family members (the maximum on the census form) there are well more than 200 questions to be answered.

The form asks for more personal financial information than does the Maryland income tax return. You must research your tax, insurance, investment and utility bills to answer the long form.

The short form asks seven questions that can be quickly answered, and used for the constitutional purpose of the census. The short form should go to everyone. Let the business world do its own work.

Mike Burns writes editorials for The Sun from Carroll County.

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