Sunday, March 14, 2010

The census and your privacy

From the 15 March 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers
By Bob Confer

In his recent column for the Greater Niagara Newspapers my friend Scott Leffler waxed poetic about how illogical – if not illegal – the US Census has become as it asks questions that were unintended by our Founding Fathers. As with quite a few issues, I agree with Scott on this one and I will be one of those folks he mentions who will try their luck by filling out only one question on the 10-question form. If push comes to shove with the Census Bureau I have the Constitution and this soapbox I call my column on my side.

Some may think that people like Leffler and myself are driven mad by conspiracy theories. Not so. We’re only playing by the book, one that is the most important book to people of this nation: The Constitution of the United States of America. The Constitution requires that a census be conducted only for the purpose of enumeration (basically, a head count) to determine the apportionment of Congressional representation and direct taxes to the States. Since it is a count only all other questions are moot and only serve a Federal Government that is much larger than that which was intended.

The Census asks about home ownership (or rental) claiming that it in indicator of the nation’s economic health and is key to the administration of housing programs and planning. It also asks questions about age, sex, and race, which the Census Bureau says is necessary for the implementation of equal opportunity and Civil Rights programs. The Bureau’s website even goes as far to say, “state governments use the (race) data to determine congressional, state and local voting districts.” That begs the question, one to be answered another day, just what does race have to do with voting districts?

The standard Census form is nosy enough, but it’s not the worst. In past 10-year Censuses a random number of households (about 1-in-6) received a long form that asked many more-specific questions. That practice has been abandoned and replaced with a questionnaire that has been sent to about 1 out of every 40 homes every year since 2005. The American Community Survey (ACS) is the Census Bureau’s way of keeping data – that supposedly cannot wait every 10 years – current and fresh so the government can make “critical” decisions. The Bureau cites the ACS as an extension of the standard Census and, therefore, in their eyes, participation is mandatory.

If you are unlucky enough to receive one of these 14-page packets in the mail you will find yourself facing questions that you probably wouldn’t comfortably share the answers of which with your friends and neighbors, let alone Uncle Sam. What time do you leave home for work? How long does it take you to get there? How many hours a week do you work? What is your annual income? How many times have you been married? Do you have difficulty making concentrating, remembering or making decisions? Does the home have a toilet, running water, a sink, a stove, a fridge, etc?

There are other questions that could be considerably time consuming. You’ll actually have to do your homework to answer them; things like: What are your monthly gas and electrical costs? What are your annual water and sewer costs? What could be your home’s selling price? What did you pay in real estate taxes? What is the monthly rent or mortgage? How large is your insurance bill?

If you’re interested in seeing the ACS and just how nosy the government can be a copy of the form can be downloaded at

Like Mr. Leffler, I won’t tell you whether or not to fill out the Census or the ACS in their entirety. It’s your prerogative. If you feel that you’re doing your job as a good citizen in answering all the questions as a means to help the government plan for our future, more power to you. If on the other hand you decline to answer the questions citing Constitutional responsibility, kudos to you as well. The Census, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder: Some people can’t live without big government while others would chose to do without it.

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