by Bruno VanderVelde [April 7th, 2000]
In 1790, George Washington signed a law mandating that every ten years, this young country called the United States of America would take a head count of the people living in it: an "enumeration of inhabitants," nothing more. A census was badly needed, because if a viable military was to be established in those turbulent days, the government needed to know where it could go to get it.
A clause was thus written into the Constitution for this very purpose, and the first American census, seven questions long, counted roughly 3,231,533 people. Note: slaves and untaxed Native Americans were not counted.
Two hundred ten years -- that’s 22 censuses -- later, America has changed. There are now, by government estimates, over 274 million people who call America home, not counting slaves and untaxed Indians. (Pun intended...) The governmental, commercial, and residential infrastructure required to support this massive populace has by most measures grown admirably with it, built at least partly upon census data.
Knowing whom live where, how many, what ethnicity, and what tax bracket gives the government some key info, especially, where it should allocate federal funds to fulfill the needs of the __[fill-in-the-blank]__ community. This may or may not always hold true, but it sounds nice.
Censuses have also held great importance for genealogical research.
But the most visible reason for the decennial American count is to rearrange, if necessary, the proportional representation in Washington of each district and state. In this way, truthfully filling out your census is a vital part of American social responsibility -- like voting.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Census Bureau mailed one of two versions of its census forms: one long, the other really long. There were a lot more than seven questions; not only did the faceless ‘government’ want to know how many people lived in your home, they wanted to know what route you take to work, how many toilets there are in your house, et al.
Public outcry began slowly and was limited to militia-minded conservatives.
Eventually, the general public came to. Why did the government need to know this stuff? Purists contended that all Washington needs is a head count, as stated in the Constitution. This went far beyond that. No national ad campaign or "Community Census Day" would relieve the shock of opening a government form asking about your bathroom, of all things.
When my parents told me they would rather risk a $100 fine than filling out one line of the short form they received, I accused them of being reactionary, non-civic-minded, and paranoid, carelessly shirking their responsibility as freedom-loving Americans. This especially irked my father, who is an immigrant.
Cutting through the ferocious fervor of their retort, I started to see their point: beyond the necessary business, why does the government need to know about this otherwise banal trivia?
Besides, if justice is colorblind, why are there so many questions about race? Shouldn’t that ideally be insignificant?
My folks weren’t the only ones angered by this.
In response to some of their constituents’ complaints, members of Congress hemmed and hawed, meekly conceding that perhaps those who didn’t want to answer a particular question could leave it blank. George W. Bush, straddling the center as usual, said he wasn’t sure even he would want to fill his census form out, having read some of these seemingly asinine questions.
But are they really that asinine? Is the census really that intrusive on an individual level, or is it just trying to look for trends upon which to act or, to be cynical, upon which to capitalize?
In any case, you can rest assured that every question on the form is there for a reason, whatever that reason may be.
In addition, many of the questions asked on the form are matters of public record or can be easily found out in some way without resorting to dubious measures.
But upon further deliberation, I don’t have the heart to blame the average American for feeling a bit skittish about this whole thing. Besides, distrust of the government is as American as apple pie.
That said, there’s no simple answer to this question. Ten years from now, the census may be quite a bit different from the current iteration, as American cynicism, for better and for worse, continues to thrive. Comfort can be found in the fact that the complete results of each census are not released to the public for 70 years; most of us, safe to say, will have left this world by 2070.
So for now, don’t worry about telemarketers trying to sell you another toilet or a faster way to work. At least not for a long time.
The only people you have to worry about misusing the information you disclose on your census -- not your race or your tax bracket, which is already available, but your habits -- is the government, and they wouldn’t do that, right?
Young idealists like me would say no.
Baby Boomers who lived through the McCarthy era, HUAC, Vietnam, the civil rights movement, the Kent State shootings, the reign of J. Edgar Hoover, and the myriad other documented incidences of governmental malfeasance over the past 40 years would say yes.
And you know what? I’m not going to argue with them.
By now, the deadline for filling out the census forms has passed. Expect some massive undercounting.
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