On a Need-to-Know Basis: Common Sense on the Census

Today we have a guest-post by an old friend, Todd Fichter. Thanks a lot, Todd! Take it away….


They are coming. Some come by land. Some come by sea. Some come on horseback. Some come on snowshoes. But rest assured, they are coming. They are coming to find you, and find you they will.

It may sound like a movie trailer about aliens or zombies, but actually it is the 2010 Census takers. Census forms have been mailed to every household in America, and are supposed to be returned by April 1. Those who do not return the form, or if the form needs further clarification, will receive a visit from a census taker. So, what is the census all about and why is it so important?

U.S. Bureau of the Census seal

U.S. Bureau of the Census seal

WARNING! Extreme history content!

Article 1, Section 2 of the United States Constitution says:

(Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.) [The previous sentence in parentheses was modified by the 14th Amendment, section 2.] The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.”

So, according to the Constitution, the census is a headcount in order to determine the number of Representatives each State receives in Congress. (The direct tax portion is moot, because with the passing of the income tax, the federal government takes money directly from the people, not the States.)

In 1790, the first census was taken by federal marshals and their appointees. The questions asked on the first census were the names of the heads of families, the number of white males sixteen and older, the number of white males under sixteen, the number of white females, the number of all other free persons, and the number of slaves. It did not take Congress long to expand the role of the census, soon adding questions greater defining age categories and regarding occupation. By 1850, census takers were asking for the value of real estate owned, if over 20 could they read or write, and my favorite – is the person “deaf, dumb, blind, insane, idiotic, pauper, or convict?” The 2010 Census consists of 10 questions, but 250,000 households also receive the American Community Survey (ACS) which asks detailed information regarding your dwelling, occupation, income, education and health.

Why does the Census Bureau need all this information? According to the Director of the Census Bureau, it “will be used to help each community get its fair share of government funds for highways, schools, health facilities, and many other programs you and your neighbors need.” According to the Census website, that is $400 Billion in federal funds up for grabs. That all sounds nice, but isn’t this a little far astray from the original intent of the census? What if I don’t want to answer all those questions? Well, the Director says you may face a fine between $100 and $5000 for failure to answer or providing false answers.

United States Constitution, page 1

United States Constitution (first page)

Not so fast, Mr. Director. Regardless of the claims that all this information gathering is legal and Constitutional, there are several reasons to doubt its validity. First of all, the Constitution itself states the purpose of the census is for a headcount to determine the number of Representatives for each State. Congress, in 1997 (in Pub. L. 105-119, title II, Sec. 209, Nov. 26, 1997, 111 Stat. 2480), affirmed this purpose as the sole Constitutional purpose of the census. There have been court cases which also challenge the legality of requiring citizens to provide the additional data: U.S. v. Little, 317 F.Supp. 1308 (D.C.Del. 1970), also U.S. v. Rickenbacker, 197 F.Supp. 924 (D.C.N.Y. 1961.) and U.S. v. Carter, 4 U.S.Dist.Ct.Haw. 198 (D.Haw.,1913). The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution guarantees us a right to private property, including information about our person. Government agencies, including law enforcement cannot invade this right to privacy without a warrant issued based upon probable cause.

Another issue is the security and protection of our privacy in the information we give in the Census. The Census Bureau assures us that no one, not even law enforcement can gain access to the private information we provide. However, during World War II, census information was used to ascertain the location of Japanese-Americans for the purpose of their detention and internment. Also, it would be good to remember that all this data is stored on computers, and we all know how computer data, no matter the provided protection, is easily compromised. In fact, just this week, the U.S. Government had to issue an apology to over 3 million college students, because their private data was stolen from a student loan database.

So, what do we do? Well, you could be cooperative, and fill out all the forms in their entirety, just as you would other surveys. But if you feel uncomfortable providing the federal government all that information, you may want to include a note with your partially filled out census form that says you are invoking your Fourth Amendment rights, and will not be providing answers to all the questions. What questions must you answer? How many people live here is a good start. Also, depending upon how you interpret the Fourteenth Amendment, you may want to include the age and sex of all the people in your household. Other than that, there is dubious validity to the federal government requiring you to answer the other questions. Since the chance of enforcement is historically small, and the risk monetarily is only $100, you may consider, like I have, that this is one area you say, “No, thank you.”


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2 Responses to "On a Need-to-Know Basis: Common Sense on the Census"

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