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Census Bureau: A Threat to Freedom

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THERE ARE three certainties in life — death, taxes and the continuation of the Census Bureau’s proud tradition of keeping information it collects about individuals strictly private.” So announces the Census Bureau’s web page, seeking to assure Americans that they have nothing to fear by opening their lives to the prying of this year’s census.

Regrettably, after seven years of the Clinton administration, some Americans might be a little skeptical about this “trust us — we’re the government” line. And, considering the Census Bureau’s dark history, people have plenty of reason to fear that their answers could be used against them.

In 1942, the Census Bureau made up a special list telling the U.S. Army how many Japanese-Americans lived in each neighborhood in the United States. The Army used the census lists to send out trucks to round up 120,000 Japanese-Americans for internment camps during World War II.

Census Bureau spokeswoman Paula Schneider stressed that because the Census Bureau did not disclose the specific names and addresses of Japanese-Americans, it did not compromise the confidentiality of census respondents. Schneider noted, “Unfortunately, what was used was data for small geographic areas that showed where the Japanese lived.” This is like someone’s claiming he has no responsibility for setting a wolf loose on your street that just happened to gnaw your leg — simply because he didn’t set the wolf free at your doorstep and personally tell it to bite you.

The New York Times, in a March 17, 2000, article, summarized a new historical paper on the role of the Census Bureau in the roundup:

On Dec. 9, 1941, two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Census Bureau produced a report titled “Japanese Population of the United States, Its Territories and Possessions.” The next day the bureau issued a report on the Japanese population by citizenship and place of birth in selected cities across the country. The next day it published another report, this one on the Japanese population by counties in states on the West Coast. [Census Bureau director J.C.] Capt justified the speed with which the bureau produced these reports by saying at a meeting of the Census Advisory Committee in January 1942: “We didn’t want to wait for the declaration of war. On Monday morning we put our people to work on the Japanese thing.

If this is how the Census Bureau protects the confidentiality of people’s responses, then one could understand why malcontents would be cynical about answering the forms.

Why should Americans believe that the Census Bureau would be more trustworthy than the White House? In 1993–94, the Clinton White House illegally requested and received from the FBI 900 confidential background files that the FBI had compiled on Bush and Reagan administration nominees. When news of this abuse surfaced in 1996, Clinton shrugged off the gross violation of privacy as a “completely honest bureaucratic snafu.” Congressional investigators recently discovered that the White House had wrongfully refused to turn over thousands of subpoenaed emails regarding the use and abuse of the files. No White House official has faced a serious prospect of jail time for breaking the law.

Federal law states that “in no case shall [census] information be used to the detriment of any respondent or other persons to whom such information relates.”

Census and housing

Yet people have been evicted from their homes for giving honest census answers in the past. According to the General Accounting Office, one of the most frequent ways city governments use census information is to “detect illegal two-family dwellings,” and an American Planning Association survey found that housing-code enforcement was a key benefit of census data for local governments. Census data provide printouts of the average number of people per room in each block. As Arthur Young, former Census Bureau housing director, observes, local governments use census data to “develop a plan to … put greater emphasis on those areas that … need inspection or code enforcement.” The census data “send inspectors to places where they are more apt to find violations,” according to Young.

The census information provides red flags for housing enforcement inspectors to target. If more people are living in a residence than the building is zoned for, then the city housing office can do a sweep of the block to find the violators. The census might be termed the Mexican, Negro, and Asian-Immigrant Easy Eviction Survey. Obviously, the people most likely to live in overcrowded situations are poor people, especially immigrants who tend to cluster in the same neighborhood. Housing codes have long been used as a means to “keep out undesirables.” If poor people could afford to live in less crowded housing, they very likely would have already voluntarily moved somewhere else to other locales long ago.

Other census data could also be used to respondents’ detriment. GAO found that housing value data are often “used to evaluate decisions of eminent domain.” Since city planners usually prefer to commandeer poor people’s property, since they have lower values than rich people’s homes, the census increases the likelihood of expropriation of poor people’s homes by the local government.

When asked about such uses of census data, Schneider replied, “You balance the need for small area data with the possibility that it could possibly be used for purposes for which it was not intended.” Such housing crackdowns sometimes appear little more than a pretext to evict blacks, Hispanics, or other low-income people.

The information the census gathers will help fuel new government interventions. A Census Bureau press release noted, “Race data are required … to assess racial disparities in health and environmental risks.” This is part of the Clinton administration’s “environmental justice” campaign — an effort to portray routine business decisions as part of a racist conspiracy. These policies have helped discourage new factories from locating in areas of high unemployment.

Most Americans received a short form — but one in six received a long form consisting of enough questions to alarm even a loyal Democrat. For instance, recipients are ordered to report to the Census Bureau what their annual income was last year. If there is any difference between what the person recalls on his census form and what he reports on his Form 1040, he can be hit with a $500 fine.

The census form asks whether any resident in the house has “a condition that substantially limits one or more basic physical activities such as walking, climbing stairs, reaching, lifting, or carrying.” What is the average American supposed to make of that question? Does it mean if a person cannot bench-press more than 200 pounds he can state that he is substantially limited from lifting? It doesn’t matter that different people will use completely different standards to answer the question. But politicians will take the raw heaped- together responses and announce that the resulting numbers prove that the United States needs the Americans with Disabilities Act more than ever.

The long form asks people whether their home contains “complete plumbing facilities.” Unfortunately, there is not a special box to check whether the home is cursed with a new federally mandated ultra-low-flush toilet — a concoction that is doing wonders for the sale of Lysol.

Welfare for your community

The Census Bureau is also trying to whip up enthusiasm by telling people of all the federal benefits their localities will receive, thanks to their cooperation. The census has degenerated from a method of counting the population into a scheme for generating grist for the expansion of the welfare state. Information on occupations is used to construct affirmative action quotas for different industries. Information on “place of birth” is used by the Civil Rights Commission as a baseline for determining discrimination by national origin. Information on home value and rental levels is used by housing agencies to establish subsidy programs.

”This is your future. Don’t leave it blank!” is one of the mottoes the Census Bureau is using to frighten people into answering the questionnaires. The Census Bureau is also paying to run a television advertisement showing burning buildings — a fire department responding — and then failing to put out the fire because of malfunctioning equipment. The announcer warns that this type of disaster is what will happen if people don’t answer their census forms and help their local government get all the federal booty it deserves. Perhaps viewers should be grateful that the advertisement did not end with a picture of Bill Clinton biting his lip.

Census director Kenneth Prewitt declared that people’s census answers affect “power, money, group interests, civil rights; in short, who gets how much of what.” But the federal government has no right to dictate “who gets how much of what.” By providing reams of information, the census allows politicians to further manipulate people’s lives. The more information government collects, the more control government can exert.

The Constitution mandates that an enumeration of the citizenry be conducted every ten years in order to apportion seats in the House of Representatives. Citizens should never be required to answer any question except for the number of residents at an address. A partial boycott of the census questionnaire was necessary to safeguard our liberties and, therefore, it was good that a large number of Americans have refused to answer all the questions. Rather than a promise of confidentiality, the government’s census forms should come with a Miranda warning: Any answers you give can be used against you.

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    James Bovard serves as policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.