The Census Bureau’s Latest Peril to Freedom

by | Jun 3, 2016


The Census Bureau is sending its hefty American Community Survey to more than three million households a year. I recently received this 28-page tsunami of questions about everything from my plumbing to my profession to my ethnicity and income. But as a former Census taker who has written about Census controversies for more than 25 years, I distrust this blunderbuss.

In 2005, the American Community Survey replaced the long Census form that was sent to a minority of respondents as part of the once-a-decade population count. Many congressmen are irate that the Census Bureau threatens $5,000 fines against anyone who refuses to answer all the questions. Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tex.) denounced it as an “unnecessary and completely unwarranted government intrusion.”

Unfortunately, citizens’ compliance with Census demands does nothing to ensure that the government itself will respect their privacy or obey the law.

The survey demands to know each residence’s previous month’s electric bill. This sounds innocuous, except that the Drug Enforcement Administration uses electric bills to snare search warrants to raid homes suspected of growing marijuana indoors, victimizing innocent homeowners. The San Diego Union Tribune reported that when drug agents raided 25 residences, “homes were targeted largely based on unusually high utility bills.”

The survey includes a barrage of housing questions, but the Census Bureau doesn’t warn respondents that such questions have spurred evictions in the past. City governments use Census information to “detect illegal two-family dwellings,” according to the General Accounting Office, and for housing-code enforcement sweeps that often target minorities and immigrants and have more to do with buffering property values than protecting public safety. The housing data, along with questions on ethnicity, will fuel HUD’s fair-housing crackdowns on localities that do not have the “correct” ratio of minorities in affluent neighborhoods. HUD announced a new initiative in 2013 to target racial imbalances in each of the nation’s ZIP codes by “affirmatively furthering fair housing.” HUD will use Census data to seek to forcibly create more “low-poverty, racially-diverse communities” across the nation.

Census unleashes a blizzard of questions on whether people have a computer, laptop, or smart phone and what type of Internet connection they use. Answering those queries will do nothing to stop the feds’ surveillance crime wave. The National Security Agency is vacuuming up Americans’ email and phone records in a manner that a federal judge condemned as illegal, unconstitutional, and “almost Orwellian.” At least the Census Bureau does not mandate that respondents disclose their email passwords — perhaps because the NSA can easily poach them on its own.

The survey asks whether any member of the household received food stamps in the previous twelve months — information that the Agriculture Department, which runs food stamps, already possesses. But regardless of whether citizens answer this question, the Obama administration refuses to disclose how recipients spend their $74 billion in food stamps each year. The feds could easily tabulate such information, but doing so would very likely shatter the pretense that food stamps are a nutritional program, as opposed to a blank check bailout for the junk food industry.

The Census Bureau also demands that respondents reveal what time they “usually leave home to go to work.” What harm could possibly befall from this question? Actually, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is hammering the Census Bureau to end its prohibition on hiring convicted criminals as Census takers. (The EEOC is currently suing private corporations for refusing to disregard job applicants’ prison records.) If the Census Bureau capitulates to the EEOC and a class-action lawsuit, almost any disclosure could become more perilous to residents. At least the Census Bureau doesn’t yet ask whether people have a home alarm system.

The survey asks whether any resident has “serious difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions.” But the Census Bureau relies on profound memory lapses to achieve compliance with its demands.

Uses of Census information

In the early 1940s, the Census Bureau brazenly violated federal law by providing key information on Japanese-Americans so that the US Army could round them up for concentration camps (later renamed detention facilities). The detentions are widely recognized now as the largest civil-liberties violation in modern American history, and Congress voted to pay compensation to the victims in 1988.

For almost 60 years, the Census Bureau denied any improper role in the internment. In 2000, researchers disclosed a cache of smoking-gun documents that compelled the bureau to finally admit some culpability. But it proudly declared that it had never provided the names and addresses of specific Japanese-Americans to law enforcement or the military.

In 2007, a study by William Seltzer of Fordham University and Margo Anderson of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee proved that the Census Bureau gave the Secret Service the names and addresses of all persons of Japanese ancestry in the Washington, D.C., area during World War II. We do not know how many other Census confidentiality violations have yet to surface.

The Census Bureau acts as if its role in the Japanese-American internment is irrelevant ancient history. But less than a dozen years ago, the Census Bureau provided the Department of Homeland Security with a massive report on how many Arab-Americans lived in each ZIP code.

Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner in the presidential race, has repeatedly promised to forcibly deport 11 million illegal aliens. And the Census Bureau could provide the roadmap for the round-ups.

The American Community Survey asks where each resident of a household was born and whether he is an American citizen. Respondents are obliged to disclose: “When did this person come to live in the United States? If this person came to live in the United States more than once, print latest year.” If foreigners repeatedly visited the US without proper papers, that could provide grist for their deportation.

The Census survey requires disclosure of the details of a respondent’s Hispanic roots — whether he is Mexican, Dominican, Salvadoran, Colombian, et cetera. That could provide sufficient information for government targeting of specific neighborhoods where undocumented aliens congregate.

The Census Bureau has long struggled with how to deal with illegal aliens. When I worked as a Census taker in Illinois in 1980, the guidance repeatedly changed on whether we should count or ignore non-US citizens. The flip-flops by Census management made a mockery of getting an accurate population head count.

The Census Bureau’s vow that survey responses will be kept confidential is as reliable as a political campaign promise. Congress can change the law at any point, regardless of how many Census takers assure respondents to the contrary. And if the Census Bureau violates the law in a way that pleases the administration in power, there is zilch chance that Census officials will be prosecuted by the Justice Department. There is no reason to presume that the feds will treat Census replies with any more sanctity than they have shown for Americans’ emails and phone records.

How happy are you?

If the government can demand that citizens fill out a 28-page form, why not send out a hundred-page interrogatory? Some Obama administration officials have been gung-ho on devising a new statistical gauge for Americans’ happiness. Alan Krueger, who was chairman of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, advocates devising a government statistic to gauge Americans’ “flow of emotional experience during daily activities.” A National Academy of Sciences panel, with help from the Census Bureau, recently analyzed proposals for surveying Americans’ “subjective well-being.” Future versions of the American Community Survey could demand information on the Monday blahs, PMS, and excessive cynicism.

The Census Bureau insists that the survey’s responses are vital to ensure a benevolent distribution of hundreds of billions of dollars of federal funding per year. Census Director Kenneth Prewitt declared in 2000 that people’s Census answers affect “power, money, group interests, civil rights; in short, who gets how much of what.” But the federal government has no right to dictate “who gets how much of what.” The Census, by providing reams of information, allows politicians to further manipulate people’s lives. The more information government collects, the more control it can exert.

Besides, politicians use statistics the way a circus sideshow shyster finagles a shell-game ball. It is inconceivable that Washington would use Census data to admit that any federal program is unnecessary, redundant, or a public nuisance.

Americans rarely find out about a government abuse until long after the deed is done. If politicians decide to order another mass round-up of unpopular minorities, the Census Bureau will very likely again serve up the names and addresses on a silver platter. That is why, despite the daily hectoring phone calls from the Census Bureau, I refuse to answer the American Community Survey.

The Constitution mandates that a Census head count be taken once a decade to apportion the seats in the House of Representatives. I am happy to do my part. To put it in the terms of a country music song, the only ones at this address are me and Jack Daniels. Actually, I’m a beer drinker, not a whiskey guy. So let me correct the record: nobody lives here except me and Raging Bitch (brewed by Maryland’s Flying Dog).

Reprinted with permission from the Future of Freedom Foundation.


  • James Bovard

    James Bovard is an American libertarian author and lecturer whose political commentary targets examples of waste, failures, corruption, cronyism and abuses of power in government. He is a USA Today columnist and is a frequent contributor to The Hill.

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