Commentary

Census 2000: You May Already Be a Winner!

This article appeared on Slate.msn.com on April 5, 2000.
As soon as George W. Bush and Trent Lott cool off about the intrusive questions posed by Census 2000 (“Do you have difficulty dressing, bathing, learning, remembering, or concentrating …”), somebody should introduce them to the real outrage of the decennial count: The U.S. Census Bureau is selling the 2000 count to the public in the ad-speak of Super Lotto. A full-page ad in the March 22 Wall Street Journal — part of the bureau’s $111 million ad campaign — warns that “your community could miss out on its fair share” of $185 billion in government programs unless you complete the census form. In other words: You can’t win if you don’t play!

The lottery language is no accident. The reason the government sells the census as your ticket to getting goodies — rather than as your civic duty — is that distributing goodies is now all the government does.

Practically every Census 2000 pamphlet and advertisement includes a variation on the multibillion-dollar payout theme. The census “isn’t just about numbers,” says a video on the bureau’s Web site. “It’s about people … and communities … and services. By filling out our census form [sic] we tell our leaders who we are and what we need.” The payout campaign has been translated into Hmong, Arabic, Chinese, Laotian, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Polish, Russian, Tagalog, Thai, and Vietnamese, a peculiar civics lesson for the government to be teaching the newest Americans. (You’ll need Adobe Acrobat Reader to read many of the bureau’s documents.) The Super Lotto idea is reiterated as Reason No. 3 in the bureau flyer “Five BIG Reasons Why You Should Fill Out Your Census Form”: “The numbers are used to help determine the distribution of hundreds of billions of dollars in federal and state funds. We’re talking hospitals, highways, stadiums and school lunch programs.”

Stadiums?!

Not making the “BIG” list is the original reason provided in Article 1, Section 2, of the Constitution: to provide for the apportionment of members of the House of Representatives.

The Census Bureau’s propaganda campaign reaches all the way to the schools, where another $18 million is being spent teaching students to pester their parents into completing Census 2000. The bureau’s Census in Schools Web site offers a raft of free propaganda to teachers: lesson plans for K-12 teachers, a series of “official school newsletters” about the census, fact sheets, Webcast info, adult literacy materials, and more. The lesson plan for Grades 3-4 urges teachers to ask the following questions and to steer the response to the “possible answers”:

  • What kinds of things does a place with a lot of young children need? (Possible answers: schools, day care centers, playgrounds.)
  • How do government agencies know where these things are needed? (Possible answer: they use census data.)

Besides promising billions to people who do fill out the form, the bureau is threatening hard times for those who don’t. One Census Bureau public service announcement I heard on the radio warns, “Not filling it out is like inviting a reduction in government services.”

That comes closer to the truth than the Super Lotto pitch. Indeed, the federal government allocates about $185 billion in programs and services based on population figures provided by the Census Bureau. The programs range from Medicaid to highway planning and construction to special education and adoption assistance. So, if you ignore the census and everybody else participates, your community will receive proportionately fewer federal dollars. But if everybody completes the form, the jackpot stays the same size and nobody will really come out ahead.

How did the simple business of counting noses for the purposes of representation become a mechanism for allocating government benefits? The first census in 1790 asked just six questions: the name of the head of the household, the number of free white males older than 16, the number of free white males younger than 16, the number of free white females, the number of other free persons, and the number of slaves. (Remember that before the 14th Amendment slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of apportioning representation, thus greatly inflating the congressional representation of the enfranchised populations of the slave states.) Later censuses added questions about occupations (for war-planning purposes) and agricultural and industrial production and the like.

The great expansion of the census accompanied the Progressive Era. “By the late nineteenth century,” writes Margo J. Anderson in The American Census: A Social History, “the traditional role of the census as a mechanism to apportion political representation faded in importance. The statisticians began to think of apportionment as merely a necessary but relatively routine and unimportant footnote in the whole census effort.” Reflecting the Progressive Era’s mania for social engineering, “the census also became a full-fledged instrument to monitor the overall state of American society.” As the New Deal and Great Society administrations increased the number of federal grant programs, the government began calling on the census to “distribute economic power,” as Anderson puts it.

The Census 2000 ad campaign’s “fair share” message hasn’t been lost on some parts of the gay and lesbian community. The Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force wants same-sex couples to check the “unmarried partners” box on the census. “All public policy flows from the U.S. Census,” said an NGLTF spokeswoman. “If we are not counted, we lose out on federal funding for research, funding for community services and passage and implementation of laws that benefit our community.” (NGLTF is considering asking the bureau to include sexual orientation questions in the 2010 census. Some homosexuals might not appreciate being asked. By answering truthfully about their sexual behavior, they confess to what is a felony in many states. By ignoring the questionnaire, they face a $100 fine and 60 days in jail. By lying, they could be punished with a $500 fine and one year in jail.)

The problem with the “fair share” PR campaign isn’t that it’s a lie. The problem is that it’s the truth. The government has become a mechanism for distributing largess, and your census form is your ticket. Yes, the census is like a lottery — almost. The difference is that you get to decide whether to play the lottery.

Tom G. Palmer is Fellow in Social Thought at the Cato Institute.