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Renée Loth

Nonsense attacks on the census

By Renée Loth
August 28, 2010

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THE REPUBLICAN National Committee’s new attack on the US Census is so nakedly transparent that you almost want to avert your eyes. Earlier this month at its summer meeting in Kansas City, the RNC passed a resolution condemning the long-form Census questionnaire, which is distributed to 15 percent of American households, as “a dangerous invasion of privacy.” With surprisingly vivid language for such matters, the resolution proclaims that the US Census Bureau “acts exactly as a scam artist would,” intimidating and manipulating Americans to answer personal questions that expose them to “the criminal use of information and identity theft.” The RNC calls on Congress to eliminate the questionnaire, now called the American Community Survey, or at least make answering it voluntary.

Republicans have never much liked the US Census — they regularly try to de-fund it or block the appointment of its directors — but they can’t easily attack the decennial enumeration of the population because it is clearly mandated in the US Constitution. Instead they have targeted the more detailed annual questionnaires that gather information on everything from marital status and income to the number of flush toilets in a home.

Never mind that most of these questions have been asked for decades or longer — the marital status query has been asked since 1880; the one on toilets since 1940. And never mind that the 2010 Census came in $1.6 billion under budget. A growing chorus of small-government and privacy-rights advocates is whipping up a frenzy of opposition to the questionnaire, calling it a waste of taxpayer dollars and tool of “the new American police state.” They point darkly to reports of Census employees helping round up Japanese-Americans for internment camps during World War II.

“One can only imagine the countless malevolent ways our federal bureaucrats could use this information,” writes Ron Paul, the Republican (and libertarian) congressman. He calls the survey “patently offensive to all Americans who still embody that fundamental American virtue, namely a healthy mistrust of government.”

The Census admits that in 1943, under the Second War Powers Act, it gave data on Japanese-American neighborhoods to the US Secret Service. It was a shameful episode in US history. But that wartime anomaly is a red herring. The real source of conservative opposition to the survey is that its answers are used to guide — and justify — expanding government programs, mostly for the elderly and poor.

The Census publishes a somewhat defensive booklet on the community survey that lists the “federal need” and the “community benefits” behind each of the 70 questions. For example, asking the number of bedrooms in a home helps identify “housing deficiencies” in certain areas and determines the allocation of Section 8 rental subsidies, energy assistance, or community development block grants. None of these programs is beloved to the Republican Party.

And of course, the more thorough and aggressive the Census takers, the more successful they are at finding elderly, poor, minority, and immigrant communities. These are the Americans most likely to need government services — and least likely to vote Republican.

Ken Prewitt, Census director from 1998 to 2001 and now a professor at Columbia University, calls the party’s opposition “political posturing.” He notes that Republican mayors and governors, more likely to be pragmatists than ideologues, support the Census because its data help them run their municipalities more efficiently.

The irony is that, if the opposition campaigns were to succeed and substantially depress participation in the Census, the government would only spend more money and become more intrusive to get the same response rate —hardly a Republican ideal.

And if collecting the data through Census forms becomes too expensive or difficult, Prewitt says, the government would likely turn to even less palatable sources for the information, such as commercial interests or the dreaded Internal Revenue Service. These digitized data sources have fewer protections and are often less accurate than “analog’’ questionnaires.

People who want to protect their privacy have more to worry about than the fusty old Census. The data mining by corporate interests from Amazon to Citibank to Facebook is far more sophisticated and personal than the government’s. But the corporate invaders of privacy are the GOP’s natural allies.

The RNC says it doesn’t want government snooping into our private lives. More likely it doesn’t want anyone discovering more Democrats.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

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