Signs have popped up all over my neighborhood in Arlington, Virginia, urging us to respond to the census – so that the 8th wealthiest county in America won’t miss out on funding collected from taxpayers across the country.
Census Bureau materials stress to local officials that census data will help them get “their fair share of funding” from hundreds of federal programs. Obviously this is a zero‐sum game. If my neighbors and I all fill out the form, then you and your neighbors will get less from the common federal trough. But at least we’ll be getting our “fair share.”
But where does the government get the authority to ask me my race, my age, and whether I have a mortgage? In fact, the Constitution authorizes the federal government to make an “actual enumeration” of the people in order to apportion seats in the House of Representatives. That’s all. Not to define and count us by race. Not to ask whether we’re homeowners or renters, or involved in a same‐sex marriage or partnership. Just to ask how many people live here, so they can apportion congressional seats.
I’m not interested in getting taxpayers around the country to pay for roads and schools and “many other programs” in my community. All the government needs to know from me is how many people live in my house.
Through the American Community Survey, the Census Bureau asks 3.5 million Americans a year many more questions, including your citizenship, your income, your marital history, whether you’re on food stamps, and how many bedrooms 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.
The bureau explains that this information “can be used in planning and funding government programs” and “to enforce laws, regulations, and policies.”
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!
There’s a darker side of census‐taking. In the beginning governments wanted to enumerate their subjects in order to raise armies and taxes. And for centuries citizens understood that. When a census was proposed in England in 1753, Andrew Whitby reports in his new book The Sum of the People: How the Census Has Shaped Nations, from the Ancient World to the Modern Age, Parliament rejected the idea. The opposition was led by William Thornton, a Whig from York, who asked, “To what end then should our number be known, except we are to be pressed into the fleet and the army, or transplanted like felons to the plantations abroad?” Today, of course, we have Selective Service and draft registration for that.
In the United States race has always been a controversial question on the census. The 1850 census was the first to ask about “color,” and the term “race” was first used in 1890. When Congress debated adding a list of races that included “Hebrews” in 1910, the American Jewish Committee objected: “Their schedule of races is a purely arbitrary one and will not be supported by any modern anthropologists. American citizens are American citizens and as such their racial and religious affiliations are nobody’s business.”
In 1960 the American Civil Liberties Union opposed including a question about race on the census. Since then the questions about race and ethnicity have only gotten more detailed.
The information provided to the Census Bureau is officially confidential for 72 years. The worst breach of confidentiality occurred in 1940, when Congress authorized the bureau to release information on Japanese‐Americans so they could be rounded up and sent to internment camps. Certainly we would not expect today’s government to access Census information in the event of a panic about AIDS, for example, or what some have insisted on calling the “Wuhan virus.”
In order to implement a republican government, the Founders instructed the government to conduct an “actual enumeration” of Americans. That’s all the government needs to know.