Testimony on the Census


I am Dr. Edward Hudgins, director of regulatory studies at theCato Institute, which never, ever accepts money from thegovernment. I want to commend the committee for holding these veryimportant hearings and to thank you for the opportunity to speak onthe Census Bureau’s proposed annual rolling sample, known as theAmerican Community Survey. There are serious questions concerningthe validity of the sample, as well as whether such a sample wouldbe a legally valid basis on which to allocate federal funds orpursue other federal aims. But I want to raise the more fundamentalissue: should the federal government be asking the questionscurrently contained in the census?

I have written on this subject as well as done many radio andtelevision interviews, and received numerous emails and phone callsof concern. I report to you today a sentiment that I believe isshared by millions of Americans. The lack of proper decorum in itsexpression here is aimed not at the individual members of Congressin attendance today but rather at the system as a whole. Anaccurate summary of that sentiment, of which I have heard manyvariations, would be: “Most of the census questions are none ofyour damned business. We hire you to protect our lives, liberties,and property, not, I repeat, not to butt into our affairs. Stopyour meddling and stick to your jobs.”

Let me now return to the proper decorum and explain thisposition by answering four questions.

First, what does the census suggest about America’scivic order?

Census Bureau director Kenneth Prewitt said it was each person’s“civic duty” to fill out the 2000 census form; indeed, that thecensus was “the nation’s first major civics ceremony of the newcentury.” But a surer sign of civic health was the public uproarover the census and the refusal of millions of Americans to answermany of its very personal questions.

The Constitution states in Article I, Section 2, that

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportionedamong the several States which may be included within this Union,according to their respective Numbers.… The actual Enumerationshall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of theCongress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term often Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.

It is clear that the Constitution authorizes the federalgovernment to “enumerate” persons in order to apportioncongressional representatives among the states. That implies thatthe government need know only how many individuals reside at agiven residence, which is the question on the first page of thecensus, which is addressed to “Resident.” It was once the case thatblack slaves were counted as only three‐​fifths of a person. But theCivil War amendments to the Constitution fortunately eliminated theneed for that question. Thus race, as well as gender and otherfactors, are irrelevant to the federal government.

But the 53 questions in the long form ask us about matters thathave nothing remotely to do with apportioning electoral votes. Weare asked for a detailed breakdown of our income (#31 – 32). We areasked about how we get to work (#23), when we leave and how longour trips take (#24). We are asked detailed questions about ouremployment (#25 – 30). We are asked the infamous question about howmany toilets we have (#39). And we are asked how much we payannually for electricity, gas, water, sewers, oil, coal, kerosene,and wood (#45).

The first civics lesson of the census is that privacy is oflittle concern to political elites; our personal business is theirbusiness.

The second lesson is proclaimed loudly by the Census Bureau. Theinformation is necessary so political elites can redistributewealth and limit liberty according to their vision of a “good“society. We are told on the cover of the census form that fillingit out “helps your community get what it needs.” On the long form,at the top of each section to be filled out by various householdmembers, we are given several messages. These include:

“Census information helps your community get financialassistance for roads, hospitals, schools and more.” [These used tobe local and state government functions and, if Congress stilladhered to the Constitution, still would be.]

“Information about children helps your community plan for childcare, education, and recreation.” [This reflects the collectivist“it takes a village” ideology that any free man or woman wouldthrow back in your faces. I would think that families not burdenedby high taxes and regulations would best plan for the upbringing oftheir children.]

“Knowing about age, race, and sex helps your community better meetthe needs of everyone.” [What kind of vapid generalization is this?How is my age, race, or sex my community’s, read, the government’s,business? One can only imagine the nefarious uses to which thegovernment will put that information.]

“Your answers help your community plan for the future.” [I’ll planmy own future, thank you.]

“Housing information helps your community plan for police and fireprotection.” [These are other local government functions performedbest without interference from Washington.]

Census Bureau TV commercials also revealed the assumption thatAmericans are not citizens of a civil society but subjects to becared for by political elites. These commercials showed crowdedschools with promises of more education funds and a waitress forcedto take her child to work with promises of money for daycare.

What is the lesson of the Census Bureau’s promotion campaign?The crystal‐​clear message is that to control us political elitesmust know us. Without census data to justify their policies,political elites would have a difficult time deceiving the publicabout the need for those policies and actually directing the livesof citizens and their civic institutions.

Of course, 50 years ago the federal government took only about 5percent of the average family’s income, compared withy 25 percenttoday, so families had more control over their expenditures andless need to ransom back their own income from Washington byfilling out census forms. Also in the past the federal governmentdid not dominate public policy and eat up most of the tax base.Thus state and local governments had more freedom to raise funds toservice the needs of the people without conforming to federalguidelines and strings attached in order to obtain money.

An indication of how political elites view most Americans isfound in question 17, which asks whether we have difficulty“learning, remembering, concentrating? Dressing, bathing or gettingaround inside the home? Going outside the home alone to shop orvisit a doctor’s office? Working at a job or business?” The thirdlesson is that political elites see us as helpless victims whocannot tie our shoes or wipe our noses without their federalprograms. In the therapeutic state, they will take care of us andlimit our liberties for our own good.

The above question reflects the same kind of attempt atdeception found in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Thatact ten years ago stated that there were 44 million Americans withdisabilities. But in fact the number of Americans who are legallyblind, deaf or confined to wheelchairs, those traditionally thoughtof as handicapped, was about 4 million. The extremely broaddefinition of “disabled” in that act allowed political elites toinflate the numbers of individuals so classified, actuallyill‐​serving those with real disabilities. The result has been wellover 100,000 invalid lawsuits claiming discrimination and has costinnocent enterprises millions of dollars in legal bills.

The data collected from census question 17 will be used to arguefor even more unsound public policy such as the ADA.

The fourth lesson is that political elites are obsessed withrace. Questions 5, 6 and 10 ask about our race and ethnic origin,give us a long list of choices (11 for Asians) and allow us to mixand match. Those collectivists do not view us by the content of ourcharacter but, literally, by the color of our skin or some accidentof birth. It is instructive that we are asked what race do we“consider” ourselves to be (it’s not what we are but what we “feel“we are). This puts off until some future date the need forNuremberg‐​type laws defining races and mandatory DNA tests.

The fifth civics lesson of the census is that families,churches, and other private, civil institutions are to be madesubordinate to and enlisted to aid political elites. The CensusBureau has enlisted 90,000 “community partners” to prod and pesterthe rest of us to fess up to the feds. That bureau has enlistedschools to send children home to harangue their parents and clergyto urge their congregations to bare their souls to bureaucrats. Butshould not the 340,000 churches, synagogues, and mosques in thiscountry concern themselves with the souls and moral character oftheir parishioners instead of helping the government to rob Peterto pay Paul?

A second question to ask concerning the census is, Whyare individuals so upset about the questions this year?After all, there were not that many more questions in the 2000census than in 1990 one.

The first reason is that the information and communicationsrevolution, and especially the Internet, has made individuals muchmore sensitive about their privacy. Individuals more and moreappreciate the potential and real problems of private personal orfinancial information being made available to others.

I want to note some good news concerning privacy in the privatesector. As more individuals become sensitive about privacy, moreweb sites are posting privacy policies. Further, new software andcompanies allow individuals to shield their identities when theyare online and even to place orders without revealing their creditcard numbers. This could lead to a market for information. Ifbusinesses or web sites find it too difficult to collect marketinginformation on individuals, they could be forced to “purchase” theinformation, for example, by offering customers discounts.

But the second major reason that individuals are sensitive abouttheir privacy is that over the past decade they have seen anunprecedented increase in government meddling into their lives.Let’s consider just a few examples.

•The Census Bureau has not only asked citizensinappropriate questions. It also has instructed its agents toengage in truly disturbing behavior that even many census takersresist. When someone is not home to answer questions or refuses toanswer, census takers can ask neighbors what they know about theabsent or closed‐​mouthed folks next door. There are also reports ofcensus takers asking for and being given access to housingapplications and records of apartment tenants from rental offices.This is not census taking; it’s spying.

•In 1998 the FDIC proposed that bank tellers ask customersabout any “suspiciously large” deposits or withdrawals. Banks wouldhave to report to the FDIC not only such transactions but also suchappropriate customer responses as “It’s none of your damnbusiness.” (This regulation has been put on hold, but bankingofficials seem poised to push ahead with the policy in anycase.)

•The U.S. Postal Service promulgated regulations in March,1999, for commercial mail receiving agencies (CMRAs), such as MailBoxes Etc., that required customers to supply two forms ofidentification, a home address, and phone number that would be kepton file by the CMRA and the local post office. Originally thatinformation from customers using their boxes for business purposeswas to be made available to anyone for the asking, for example,stalkers or abusive men tracking down ex‐​wives or girlfriends. (The“release to everyone” regulation was changed to “release only togovernment officials,” an important but by no means completelysatisfactory change.)

•The administration’s misnamed medical privacy regulations,proposed in November, 1999, would eliminate the need for thegovernment to acquire individuals’ permission to use or distributetheir medical records. I observe that on the list of those to whomthe government can give out that information are undergraduatesdoing research. (They are not old enough to drink but they are oldenough to violate our privacy.)

•One of the administration’s proposals for a unique healthidentifier would require a DNA sample from every American. (Forthose of you who want to understand the implications of such amove, see the movie Gattaca.) Even the alternatives would, ineffect, bar Americans from acquiring health care in their owncountry if they do not provide government officials with whateverpersonal information they request.

•The Kidcare program allows schools to offer health careservices to children. But these are not the traditional programs tomake certain that kids get shots for measles and other diseases.The program allows health care workers to inquire into children’shome lives and psychological well‐​being. This potentially allowsquacks spouting the latest psycho‐​babble to act against parents whooffer an “unhealthy” home situation for kids.

•Health care workers going into a home to administer servicespaid for by Medicare are being required to record information notonly about the patient’s physical health but about the patient’smental health as well. Is the patient moody? Does the patient flirtwith the nurse? This kind of subjective information could be usedto commit to mental institutions elderly individuals who do nothave politically correct attitudes.

•The bill S.486, which was passed by the Senate, and H.R.2987, now before the House, would allow federal agents to enter ahome, take “intangible” items, for example, make photocopies ofdiaries or other papers, and copy computer hard drives, but wouldnot require the agents to notify the citizen that his or her homehad been searched, or to provide an inventory of intangible itemstaken.

There have also been reports in recent years of governmentbureaucrats examining the tax returns and medical records ofcelebrities. The Clinton administration was caught with 1,000 FBIfiles on political opponents in the White House. We are also toldby former Clinton adviser Dick Morris that candidate Clinton in1992 spent $100,000 in federal campaign funds to hire privatedetectives to investigate the personal backgrounds of women who hadhad relationships with Bill Clinton. This information was to beused to intimidate, smear, and discredit those women.

I could go on with many other examples but there can be no doubtat all of the clear pattern here, that the federal government hasembarked on the most massive invasion of privacy in the country’shistory. Many Americans see that pattern and thus, understandably,are reluctant to hand over to an intrusive government theinformation requested on the census.

A third question is, What problems result or mightresult from collecting information on the census beyond that neededto allocate electoral votes?

The above examples suggest many of the possible abuses of suchinformation. But let me review a number of specific issues. First,consider an example of how that information currently can bemisused. The Justice Department will accuse, for example, anentrepreneur who employs 45 percent of a certain minority in hisfacility of racial discrimination. As a basis the government willclaim that even though the proportion of that minority in theentrepreneur’s city might be only 25 percent, in his neighborhoodor local area, the proportion is 65 percent. Such cases are basedon the manipulation of census data. Such data, of course, do notnecessarily indicate cases of actual racial discrimination. Theyusually represent attempts by predatory bureaucrats to make theirreputation by harming the innocent.

Second, I will also raise several possible problems with theAmerican Community Survey. Currently, the census long form is sentto about one in six households, that is, cost to 20 millionhouseholds. If the Survey samples, say, 2 million households peryear, then the same number of households will be burdened byintrusive questions as is now the case. Further, this rollingsurvey could be a problematic criterion on which to base federalgovernment expenditures and actions. Let us say, for example, thatNew York City is sampled in 2002 but Indianapolis not until 2008.If federal funds in 2009 are passed out on the basis of population,how will the populations of the two cities be calculated? Will thepopulation of New York City be extrapolated to a projected 2008figure? Sometimes population changes are not steady. Would it bebetter to take the population in some base year when both citieswere sampled, say, the obvious year of 2000? That solution toowould be imperfect. But would it be fairer than counts taken atdifferent times?

A third problem with extensive census questions, whether in thecurrent long form or proposed survey, is that many seem calculatedto provide free marketing data for corporations, with the federalgovernment’s footing the bill and the American people, who are freeto tell private pollsters to mind their own business, forced toanswer to government agents acting as agents for businesses. Formerlabor secretary Robert Reich was correct to denounce corporatepork. The census is a primary example of such a handout. Businessesare welcome to conduct whatever surveys they wish, but not at thepublic’s expense. As I mentioned earlier, concerns for privacy areproducing a market for information in the private sector. Thecensus undermines that market.

The fourth question is, What should bedone?

The obvious answer is that the federal government shouldeliminate most of the questions on the census, retaining only thosefew, maybe only one, necessary to exercise the constitutionalmandate to enumerate the population every decade for the purpose ofassigning electoral votes.

It is clear that the census for the most part no longer serves aconstitutional purpose. Census information now serves more theneeds of political elites who, to control us, must have detailedinformation about us. We have seen the strong resistance of thecitizens of this country to the census. Several lawsuits have beenfiled challenging its intrusive questions.

The current census is a damning indictment of the currentpolitical regime. Contrast the regime embodied in the census formwith the civil society envisioned by the Constitution. Individualsshould have the right to live in peace, as they see fit, to sharetheir lives with family and friends, and to open their hearts towhom they choose. The challenges of life should be met in vibrantcivil institutions. Individuals should be equal before the law,regardless of race, religion or ethnic origin. And the role ofgovernment officials should be limited to protecting the lives,liberties and property of individuals, not meddling in our affairsand managing our lives as means to maintain their positions ofpower and privilege.

Perhaps a proper response to the census and the regime it seeksto strengthen is found in Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus and his crewwere held in the cave of the savage Cyclops who “knew nought ofjustice or of law.” To escape, Odysseus blinds the monster. It issad when citizens think of their own government as a dangerouscreature that might devour them. Congress can begin to restorerespect for the government by showing the proper respect for thecitizens. It could start by eliminating the questions on the censusthat are not necessary for apportioning electoral votes and leavethe private affairs of the citizens as just that, private.

Subcommittee on the Census
Committee on Government Reform
United States House of Representatives