Census officers on disturbing, invasive drive

CNJ Editorial

What would you do if government agents showed up at your door and demanded highly personal information about you and your housemates, then threatened you with up to $5,000 in fines if you didn’t answer or provided incorrect information?

It’s an interesting dilemma, and one that American citizens should not have to face if they are not being charged with wrongdoing. Yet, the federal government is engaging in this practice right now, nationwide.

The Orange County Register newspaper, our sister paper in California, heard from a resident who was chosen for a random survey and a follow-up, in-person interview with a Census Bureau representative. Although he didn’t want his name used out of fear of retribution, he is concerned about handing out such personal information. And he’s angry at the intrusion — having to face a surly census taker who traipsed across his yard and demanded answers to the questions … or else.

This is part of the U.S. Census’ latest project, known as the American Community Survey. Census officials in Los Angeles said it replaces the so-called “long form,” an alternative to the census form most people receive but which is no longer being included in the census.

The U.S. Census Web site explains that a relatively small sampling of Americans (3 million people annually) are being sent a questionnaire every month as a part of its project to develop detailed statistical information about the nation. “If you receive the … questionnaire, you are required to respond and provide accurate information to the best of your ability,” the Web site explains. Note the word required.

Yes, the U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 2, states that “representation and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states which may be included within this union, according to their respective numbers … . 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.”

But the enumeration was meant to be simply that, an enumeration of the number of residents in the country to determine information about representation and taxes. A census spokesman said “every item we ask in the census is (in response to) federal data needs for federal programs.” So again we see how one form of expansive government leads to even more intrusive government.

We have no problem with conducting a basic, head-counting census. However, the questions in this ongoing survey are so intrusive it is chilling. The survey demands the usual personal information — name, phone number and names of all people living at the address. It also asks for demographic and ethnic information, but it gets worse.

The survey asks the value of the home, the type and amount of the mortgage, the costs of utilities and insurance and property taxes, whether the occupant is on food stamps, how many days the respondent has lived at the address and the number of automobiles owned.

Then it gets personal. The survey asks about citizenship, college attendance, languages spoken at home, health conditions, where the person lived a year ago. The survey asks if the respondent has difficulty learning, remembering, concentrating, dressing, bathing or getting around the home.

It asks about children, about who watches them, about specific dates of military service, about the time the respondent leaves the house in the morning, about hours of work, types of work, name and address of employers.

The Census Bureau also asks the recipients of the survey how much money they earn, about investments, Social Security income, public assistance and other forms of income. Disturbing, no?

The Constitution authorizes a head count, period. And it authorized it to be done once every decade, not every month. This seems a classic example of how the government constantly pushes the envelope, grabbing more and more power beyond its original mission.

Such an intrusive survey opens the door to identity theft and misuse of data by government officials. Many of the questions, such as those dealing with real estate values, deal with information already readily available. Some information already is tabulated by private firms with a need to assemble the data.

The difference is vital.

Private firms cannot coerce individuals to provide information they don’t want to provide. Government sends someone to your door with threats.

This is outrageous.

Congress should insist that the Census Bureau stick to its mission and put an end to the American Community Service survey.