The Census Consensus: Stand Up And Be Counted (Or Not)

Perhaps the most glaring lunacy of the tea party movement—a questionably grassroots endeavor that takes its name from the Boston Tea Party—is that some factions plan to boycott the U.S. Census. If the substantive idea behind the name is “no taxation without representation” and the purpose of a census is to determine the number of representatives from a particular state, then I would argue they’d be the first in line to be counted. Right?

Not exactly.

Gallup polls show government trust is at historic lows for the President, as low as 1973 when the OPEC oil embargo began, and the lowest ever recorded for the U.S. Congress. D.C.-area wacko Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) last year suggested the census should be boycotted and it is what helped put the Japanese into internment camps during World War II (as if that has any bearing on the current census). Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Bachmann have later gone on record stating the only legal constitutional (see below) requirement of the census is the amount of people who live in a household.

So not only does government mistrust undermine the effectiveness of census, but legislators throw gas on the fire.

The current census form has 10 questions, most of which have been on the form since the turn of the 20th century. In 1970, a question asked specifying whether the person is of Hispanic or Latino origin was added to comply with anti-discrimination provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Most recently, a question was added to see if the person involved regularly stays somewhere else, to avoid people being counted twice.

It’s among the shortest census forms in history, but it’s apparently not short enough for tea partiers, some of which are expected not to answer the form’s other nine questions (if the faction in question doesn’t plan to boycott the census altogether) on privacy grounds. The allegation is dubious at best; more information could be derived from a supermarket loyalty card and a credit card application, but no one’s picketing outside their local Piggly Wiggly demanding the privacy of their shopping list. And more “sensitive” information than what the census collects goes to the government every year on the IRS short form.

The idea that the government is more likely to take advantage of privacy information than a for-profit company—like Google, United Healthcare or American Express—is yet another knee-jerk reaction stemming from that above mistrust. A company whose sole mission is to turn a profit is much more likely to take advantage of your personal information than the U.S. government. Skepticism is encouraged in these parts, but it’s important to note that we’re not living under a military junta.

And so proponents of “being counted” choose not to be, or at best not in a thorough way. More interestingly, Latino groups across the country plan to boycott of the form to spur talks on immigration reform. The census form specifically does not ask if you are an American citizen. So if an area has a particularly high population of illegal immigrants who are counted, that area could see a greater proportion of federal grants and perhaps even another House representative. However, that doesn’t benefit the illegal immigrants, so their boycott serves to further cripple areas that likely need greater overall investment—most notably inner-city communities. Factor in an inherent urge for illegal immigrants to stay off the radar, and the problem is compounded.

So as disparate groups choose to avoid the census altogether or in part, it forces the Census bureau to hire more part-time workers to the tune of $85 million for every one percent of Americans who fail to mail back the form in the largest non-military government hiring program in history. Not exactly pennies, even for a government agency that bought a Super Bowl ad and took the time to mail a letter informing households to expect the form, rather than simply sending out the form and the letter at once, a measure that would save roughly $30 million in postage.