February 11, 2010 3:45PM

The Census and the Constitution

The Washington Post profiles Daniel Weinberg, assistant director of the Census, who says:

“Since the decennial census is in our Constitution, it is the most important task a government statistician can undertake. The census is key to our democratic society by making sure that our congressional districts are equal in size so that we have representative democracy. To be involved in something that is central to our democracy is pretty exciting.”

Good point. The census is indeed in the Constitution, Article I, Section 2. The Constitution provides that every ten years an enumeration of the population of each state shall be made in order to allocate members of the House of Representatives.

Unfortunately, the census has been loaded down with intrusive questions not authorized in the Constitution and bearing no relation to the constitutional necessity of reapportionment. This year the Census Bureau is boasting of “one of the shortest forms in history,” which is all to the good. Still, it does ask respondents to list their race, which really should be irrelevant to government. And to tell whether they own their home or have a mortgage, in order “to administer housing programs and to inform planning decisions.” (That’s worked out well!) And of course they need age and sex data, in order to facilitate various government programs and mandates and to assist “sociologists, economists, and other researchers who analyze social and economic trends.”

Through the American Community Survey, the Census Bureau continues to ask Americans many more questions, from whether you’re on food stamps to how many bathrooms you have. All very interesting to sociologists and planners, of course, but hardly what Madison anticipated when he and his colleagues provided for an “actual enumeration” of the constituents of Congress.

Writing in Slate back in 2000, Tom Palmer complained that the Census Bureau was selling the census as a kind of Super Lotto: You can’t win if you don’t play! “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.” Come on! Get your piece of other people’s tax dollars!

In 1990 David Kopel reviewed the Census Bureau’s promise of confidentiality.