What's Behind Resistance to the 2010 Census?

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(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Today is Census Day. President Obama declared it so, not because the U.S. census form is due today, but because today is the day of reference that defines who to report as living in your household on your form. In other words, all of the your answers on the census form must be true as of April 1.

It's a good thing that today is not the actual day the forms are due, because my census form still lies unopened on my kitchen counter. Robert Grove, director of the Census Bureau, would like for us to think of today as the due date, however, because the government wants our demographic information as soon as possible.

The 2010 census, which is still very similar to the first-ever census taken in 1790, serves an important governmental function. Census information affects the number of seats each state occupies in the U.S. House of Representatives. And it impacts how hundreds of billions of federal funding is allocated. We are all mandated by law to complete the survey or risk prosecution under Title 13 of the U.S. Code, which includes the imposition of up to $5,000 in fines. But this won't happen right away. If you fail to return your form by April 9, your friendly neighborhood census taker will appear at your door to interview you. If you cooperate and answer all 10 questions, you are good to go.

Sounds easy. Sounds reasonable. So why has there been so much resistance to getting it done and turning it in?

The U.S. census, in addition to inquiring about where you live and how many people you live with, has always asked about your race and ethnicity. Lots of folks have a problem with those inquiries and how that information has historically been used. Melissa Nobles, associate professor of political science at MIT, points out that race and ethnicity have always been a matter of relevance and concern for our government, even though race is not at all a factor in the determination of House seats. She states:

Representation depended on civil status -- whether a person was free or a slave -- and not on racial status. There were free colored persons, after all. Yet racial identification was combined with civil status in the census because race was a salient political and social marker.

The census of a period almost always discloses the racial climate of its time. Nobles points out, for example, that:

The 1840 and 1850 censuses were directly intertwined with debates about slavery. Data from the embattled, and largely discredited, 1840 census purportedly disclosed higher rates of insanity among free blacks, thereby proving that freedom drove free black people crazy ... [T]he introduction of "Chinese" and "Japanese" in the 1870 and 1890 censuses, respectively, also reflected growing concerns about Japanese and Chinese immigration.

Historical and current resistance to the census is not so much because racial and ethnic questions are asked, but more out of the fear of how that information will be used. Outspoken Minnesota Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann made news last year, when she announced to the Washington Post and to Fox News that she planned to break the law by not fully completing the census for her household. She cited her distrust of the government's use of the information. As part of her justification, she referenced the long-acknowledged fact that during World War II, census information was used to facilitate the arrest and placement of the Japanese into internment camps. She said:

I'm not saying that that's what the administration is planning to do. But I am saying that private personal information that was given to the Census Bureau in the 1940s was used against Americans to round them up in a violation of their constitutional rights and put the Japanese in interment camps.


Today, her Republican colleagues have asked her to end her boycott, the Washington Post reports.

Given repeated allegations that census information has been used by the federal government to monitor citizens of Middle Eastern descent; by banks and lending institutions to red-line neighborhoods of color; and by local municipalities to unfairly enforce housing codes and zoning laws, it's no wonder that there is distrust and discomfort with the use of our private information. It is especially understandable among Hispanic communities in this current anti-illegal immigration climate. There was a rumor that some in the Hispanic community might boycott the census. Matthew Reichbach of The New Mexico Independent wrote today:

There have been fears that Hispanics, especially foreign-born Hispanics, would boycott the census because of slow work on an immigration reform bill from Congress or fears from those here illegally that the information would be used to deport them.

But according to a Pew poll Reichbach cited, 91% of foreign-born and 78% of U.S.-born Hispanics say they either have already or will definitely mail in their forms.

The Census Bureau assures us that our information is safe with them and will not be abused. The website states:

We use your information to produce statistics. Your answers cannot be used against you by any government agency or court ... All Census Bureau employees take the oath of nondisclosure and are sworn for life to protect the confidentiality of the data ... The penalty for unlawful disclosure is a fine of up to $250,000 or imprisonment of up to 5 years, or both.

However you come out on the issue of governmental use of private information, the law says your census form is due .. and due soon. Do you think you’ll fill out and return yours? How concerned are you about the safety of your information in the hands of the Feds?


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