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Monday, May 1, 2000

The Census: Inquiring Minds Want to Know a Lot

What Is the Real Purpose of the Census?

What the federal bureaucracy calls “the largest peacetime mobilization effort in U.S. history” is now underway. It’s the 2000 census—and if you’re an American citizen, it’s got a few questions for you. As many as 53, in fact.

America’s founders felt it was important enough to know how many people lived in the country that they wrote a requirement for a census every ten years into the third paragraph of Article I, Section 2, of the Constitution. For the important purpose of apportioning representation in the House of Representatives, that passage specifies that the federal government, under the direction of the Congress, shall count the number of people—period.

The first census in 1790 included a question about race and residence, but that was about the sum of it. In the intervening 213 years, the census has morphed into much more than a head count. Indeed, it may now be the clearest index available of the growth and intrusiveness of the federal establishment.

In mid-March, a census “short form” was mailed to nearly every American. Its seven questions are designed to find out the recipient’s name, age, sex, race, relationship to household, whether or not the recipient is His panic, and whether his housing is owned or rented. One in six households were mailed the “long form”—a 53-query marathon of nosy inquiries about everything from disabilities to employment to income. Answering the census is not an option; under the law, it’s mandatory.

The folks who devised the long form are particularly interested in your house. They want to know how many rooms it has, when it was built, where you get your water, what your utilities cost, how you financed it, and how many cars, telephones, and bathrooms you’ve got. Other questions on the long form ask about your education, health, job, and ride to work (to find out if you drive a car or take a bus). To borrow a line from a famous tabloid ad, “inquiring minds want to know.”

The more important question that cries out to be asked, however, is just why do these inquiring minds want to know all these things? Who and where you are is now a minor part of this decennial exercise; the census these days is much more about how to divide the loot. The U.S. Census Bureau isn’t bashful about admitting this in its literature:

Census 2000 will be the information cornerstone for the next century. Billions of dollars of federal, state, and local funds will be spent on thousands of projects across our nation. How and where that money is spent depends on how accurate the census count is . . . . Twenty-two of the 25 largest Federal funding grant programs of fiscal year 1998 are responsible for $162 billion being distributed to state, local, and tribal governments, and about half of this money was distributed using formulas involving census population data, according to a report by the General Accounting Office. We expect that at least $182 billion will be distributed annually based on formulas using Census 2000 data.

Bureaucrats and central planner wannabes aren’t the only folks who want to use the census to learn a lot about you. In between each count, the Census Bureau is besieged with requests from private interests who want to get their pet questions baked into the next one at taxpayer expense. Marketing and health research people want data on behavior and ailments. Internet service firms want to know who’s wired and who isn’t. Sociologists push to find out more about who’s going to which church, and which individuals are providing support to their grandparents. Maybe we owe Congress and the bureaucracy a little appreciation for resisting most of the litany of requests and keeping their questions on the long form to a “mere” 53.

It all reminds me of the wisdom of Frederic Bastiat, the great French statesman and philosopher who wrote in his magnificent primer on the proper function of government, The Law: “As long as it is admitted that the law may be diverted from its true purpose—that it may violate property instead of protecting it—then everyone will want to participate in making the law, either to protect himself against plunder or to use it for plunder.”

That a head count is no longer the primary focus of the census was dramatically illustrated by a proposal from the Clinton administration. In the run-up to the 2000 census, the administration announced it wanted to incorporate something called “statistical sampling” into the counting method. Instead of trying to count each person the government would count people in 90 percent of American households and then on the basis of those numbers, make guesses and assumptions about the remaining 10 percent. Because a Republican Congress figured a Democratic administration would make guesses and assumptions that would boost the electoral prospects of its friends, statistical sampling was on the ropes until the Supreme Court landed the final blow and killed it several months ago.

Perhaps the focus on extraneous information has cut into the very accuracy of the count that is supposed to be the main purpose of the census. By its own estimates, the Census Bureau missed 1.6 percent of the U.S. population in 1990—worse than its performance ten years before. The government misses millions of people, but it wants to dole out their money based on such details as how many bathrooms they have.

While Census Bureau Director Kenneth Prewitt says it’s your “civic duty” to complete the 2000 census form, not everybody thinks so. The Libertarian Party captured some headlines when its national director, Steve Dasbach, declared in January, “Real Americans don’t answer nosy Census questions. You can strike a blow for privacy, equality, and liberty by refusing to answer every question on the Census form except the one required by the Constitution: How many people live in your home?” Noting the real purpose of most of the long form’s queries, Dasbach said, “Census information is used to forge the chains that bind Americans to failed government programs, meddlesome bureaucracies, and sky-high tax rates.”

It’s not happenstance that as the government’s share of our income rises and its toll on our liberties grows, the census gets longer and more intrusive with each passing decade. It’s part of the package: a government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you’ve got. To do all that for you and to you, it has to ask you lots and lots of questions.

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is