Sunday, March 19, 2000

Who counts? Only those willing, able

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        I have already filled out my census form. I made sure I answered every question so I would not be visited by a follow-up census worker who might interrupt important educational pursuits, such as Ally McBeal and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

        People like me with a place to live that comes equipped with a mailbox and a drawer full of ballpoint pens are the easy ones. Lots of us have already returned them, beating the April 1 deadline.

        The questionnaire was preceded by a notice saying my census form was on the way. This letter was accompanied by a postage-paid envelope, useless unless I intended to send them a thank-you note for spending $7 billion. And for deciding to count us more or less the way the government did back in 1790, when the census began.

        I'm surprised they're not delivering the letters on horseback.

Privacy promised
        One difference is that the information is not as public as it once was. Before 1880, local marshals asked the questions, and could give the information to anybody who wanted it. Now, that's against the law.

        You probably won't see them around here, but census-promotion signs are posted in California promising: No INS, No FBI, No CIA, No IRS. “No one outside the Census Bureau can access your personal information,” adds the fine print in Spanish and English.

        The nation's estimated 6 million illegal immigrants — 40 percent of whom live in California — are targets of the ads, part of a $167 million campaign. Language assistance guides were printed in 49 languages, including Urdu.

        Depending on whom you believe, the 1990 census missed about 8 million people. Or about 4 million. Or it double-counted 6 million. Or it double-counted 4 million.

        Nobody really knows for sure, but we do know that again this time, the Census Bureau will be counting the people who are willing to be counted. Or who have mailboxes. Or who can read. Or who are old enough to check a box for themselves.

        There are fines for not cooperating, but Census Director Kenneth Prewitt admits they don't prosecute.

        Congress, which never misses an opportunity to split along party lines, was divided over the best way to conduct this poll. One choice was statistical sampling — projecting populations by counting some of them, then applying a scientific formula.

        For instance, you might count the middle-aged hippies who say they went to Woodstock, divide by five then multiply by the number of Volvos in the neighborhood.

        U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., was the plaintiff in a successful lawsuit to prohibit census sampling for congressional apportionment. “The Constitution uses the words "actual enumeration,' and not "statistical sampling,' or "puffed numbers' or "best guess,'” he said.

Sampling vs. head count
        Republican lawmakers generally opposed sampling, possibly because they don't think that method would get us any closer to finding the people living in cardboard boxes or hiding from the INS. And possibly because a higher head count in the inner city might mean redrawing House districts to give urban dwellers more representation. And that representation is usually Democratic.

        Besides the number of legislators, of course, the census also helps determine who gets about $182 billion each year in federal money. And the long form is supposed to help us figure out who we are these days.

        What we really need to know is how many children are going to depend on financial help to get educated and fed. How many people are going to need special help to get a job.

        It's supposed to be a road map to the future.

        “The purpose of the census is not about your heritage or your lineage,“ says Melanie Campbell, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Coalition of Black Voter Participation. “It's about money and political power.”

        Well, we knew it was not really about counting.

        Laura Pulfer welcomes your email at


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