Last year, Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller stopped by our office here in the Stephens Media bunker, escorting a guy from the Census Bureau. Their joint message: Tell people to fill out their census forms, since the count will be used to distribute lots of goodies from Washington.
I politely told our guests I didn’t think the “goodie bag” argument was their strongest. The Constitution mandates the decennial count, for allocation of congressional seats and of direct taxes (last assessed against the states to pay off the Civil War debt, as I recall, under never-repealed language that means the personal income tax, not being capitated, cannot be a direct tax, but must instead be collected as an indirect excise, just for the record.)
Americans should tell the census takers how many people live in their homes, for those purposes only.
“Your problem,” I told the Census public relations man last winter, “is that your forms have gotten so intrusive. You ask all kinds of nosy questions that have nothing to do with that basic Constitutional mandate, and that’s why you’re stirring up so much resistance.”
“Oh, we’ve learned that lesson,” he smiled. “No more long forms. Just 12 simple questions.”
Still 11 too many. But I took his answer at face value.
Which only proves I’m a slow learner.
As with most things you’ll hear from a government man, that “no more long forms” stuff was accurate … up to a point.
The bureau may have dropped their “long form” for purposes of the actual decennial census. But they haven’t given up asking all those intrusive questions, which enable the outfit’s current, massive mission creep, marketing toilet counts to bathroom fixture salesmen, or whatever other unconstitutional folderol they’re up to.
In fact, late last year, with the actual Census under their belts, instead of laying off all but a skeleton staff of night watchmen for the next nine years, the Census snoops started sending them out again, to selected households, as the 2011 “American Community Survey.”
A reader, who happens to be a retired Army officer, got the nosy questionnaire, and was particularly riled at the accompanying, undated, photocopied letter from Census chief Robert M. Groves, informing him that filling the thing out “is required by law.”
“Look,” the retired colonel told me after turning over the 28-page, green-and-white form, “I’m a patriotic guy. I served my country. And last year I cooperated with the Census count. But have you read the questions on this new form? They’re ridiculously intrusive, and I’m not going to answer them. How are they going to punish me? They mailed this thing to ‘Resident.’”
For each of up to five people living in the house, the form wants to know name; race (one box specifies “Black, African Am., or Negro”), and relationship to Person 1 (“Unmarried partner”?)
But that only gets you through the first four of the survey’s 28 pages.
When was your home built? On how many acres? In the past 12 months, what were the actual sales of all agricultural products from this property? Have you got a flush toilet? A stove or range? A “sink with a faucet”? Do you heat with gas, fuel oil, coal or coke, wood?
What were your heating costs? Your rent? Water and sewer bill? “Does the monthly rent include any meals?” Got a second mortgage?
Is person 1 a citizen? (Gee, I’m sure THAT one registers high on the accuracy scale.) Is person 2 a high school graduate? College? Nursery school? (Yes! There’s a box to check off “highest level of school completed: Nursery school.”) Does person 3 speak a language other than English at home? Does person 4 have health insurance? Is person 5 deaf? IS SHE DEAF?
Does person 1 have serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs? How any times has person 2 been married? Three or more times? Has person 3 given birth to any children in the past 12 months? If person 4 worked for pay last week, “even for as little as an hour,” where? (Include street number.) How did he or she get to work? How many people rode in the car? Did that person miss work last week to due to illness or weather? Was person five on welfare last year? Report Person 1’s income from wages, salary, commissions, bonuses, tips, and/or “self-employment income. …”
I’m sure glad they got rid of all the “intrusive” stuff.
“The long form questions which previously went out to a sample, to one in six households, the long forms with those detailed characteristic type questions, the change that was made in this census is that we dropped those for the Census itself, we just had the short form, that’s the reference to the 12 questions,” explains Doug Wayland, the Bureau spokesman from Denver who returned my call.
“And yet the American Community Survey is still a part of the census in gathering that information. So yes, it wasn’t part of the 2010 Census, but yes, you’re required to answer.”
So they just passed a law that anything the Bureau chooses to ask, you have to answer?
“That’s decided by Congress. All those questions are related to specific budgetary type matters; those questions aren’t just arbitrarily asked,” Mr. Wayland insists.
Wow. Sure glad to know it was 218 congressmen, and not just some bureaucrat, who decided Uncle Sam needs to know whether I’ve got “a flush toilet” and “a sink with a faucet.” What the heck is that for — the new sink installer’s stimulus bailout program?
And if people don’t fill these out, what happens? They get fined? They get arrested?
“In terms of Dr. Groves’ reference to ‘Is it mandated?’ … our staff people who are conducting the American Community Survey are really trained and instructed in how to present it so that they can overcome some of the objections that you’re hearing. …
“The Census Bureau is not in law enforcement, our goal is to collect the information, so they try to emphasize the benefits of why those questions are asked, what they are related to, trying to explain so that they understand it relates to revenue … coming back to the community, programs that relate to senior citizens, road construction and so forth. So typically an objection is outweighed when they understand the importance of that data, how it translates into programs and services to their community.”
Yeah. And does anyone ever get fined for refusing to fill it out?
“At the Census Bureau, we don’t get into the enforcement part of it. There’s specific language that talks about fines, et cetera. …”
And … does anybody get fined?
“I’m not aware of anyone being fined.”
What’s the compliance rate?
“It’s very, very high.
You do follow-up calls, visits?
“There’s a whole sequence,” Mr. Wayland replied. “You do the initial questionnaire by mail, then by phone, and then the last resort is in person, with the goal of getting the accurate information. … One of the things we absolutely emphasize is the confidentiality. There are significant fines if there’s a breach of confidentiality, and the data they’re retrieving is not on the individual.”
So they’ve already got the street address, and now they want my retired Army officer’s first name, his last name, the names of everyone else in the house, where they were born, their relationships, the address where each of them lived one year ago, the street address where they work, what time of day they usually leave for work, how they get to work, total income including interest and dividends … but nothing personal.
All our questions can actually be answered online, Mr. Wayland concludes.
“Just go to www.census.gov, and then click on ‘American Community Survey.’ When you get to that, then click “About the survey,” then click on “questions on the form.”
Under Frequently Asked Questions, there’s even one labeled “Must I respond?”
I asked Mr. Wayland if he doesn’t think the Bureau breeds resistance by threatening a fine.
“We don’t stress that. We constantly reinforce why it’s a benefit. We’re not in law enforcement. Our rule is, if there’s resistance to it, if it becomes a law and order thing, that’s referred to another agency.”
What other agency?
“The Justice Department, if it got to that.”