The Wall Street Journal
Tuesday, August 8, 1989
Honesty May Not Be Your Best Census Policy
By James Bovard
Next year, the Census Bureau will conduct the
21st decennial census. Ironically, while the bureau collects
masses of information partly to justify expanding various
welfare programs, many poor people will be victimized by
their answers. While many liberal groups are worried about
how the census will count the homeless, no one is paying
attention to how the census could create new homeless.
The census forms next year will ask up to 59
questions per household, depending on whether it receives a
long or short form. They will include up to 26 questions on
housing -- type of building, approximate number of units in
the building, monthly rent or mortgage payment, whether solar
energy is used, etc. Anyone who refuses to answer any
question can be fined $100.
Each household will receive an official notice
census form next March: "Although your answers are required,
the law guarantees privacy. . . . The only people allowed to
see your answers to the census are Census Bureau employees.
No one else -- no person, government agency, police office,
judge, welfare agency -- can see them. It's the law." Federal
law states that "in no case shall [census] information be
used to the detriment of any respondent or other persons to
whom such information relates."
Yet, people have been evicted for giving honest
answers. Though the Census Bureau does not release data on
each household, it does release information on blocks -- and
a block can have as few as six houses on it. The average
block contains 14 houses.
According to the General Accounting Office,
one of the
most frequent ways city governments use census information is
to detect illegal two-family dwellings. An American Planning
Association survey reported that housing code enforcement was
a key benefit of census data for local governments.
For instance, Montgomery County, Md., and Pullman,
use census data on the number of housing units in a structure
to check compliance with zoning regulations. The Long Island
Regional Planning Board uses census "block counts . . . to
estimate the extent of illegal two-family home conversions,"
according to a June 27, 1986, board letter. Such "illegal"
two-family dwellings are pervasive on Long Island, according
to Anthony Downs of the Brookings Institution. Such
crackdowns are especially unfortunate because, as George
Sternlieb of Rutgers University notes, "The biggest source of
good-size rental apartments in America is the illegal
conversion of single family houses."
Census data help housing inspectors zero in
Bruce Stoffel of the Community Services Department of the
city of Urbana, Ill., declared in an Aug. 24, 1987, letter to
the Census Bureau that he "routinely used census data to
analyze the development stage of neighborhoods to determine
the most appropriate public intervention strategies (e.g.,
Obviously, the people most likely to live in
situations are poor people, especially immigrants, who often
cluster in the same neighborhood. Housing codes have long
been used as a means to "keep out undesirables" and to
exclude waves of newcomers. William Tucker, author of the
forthcoming "The Excluded Americans," notes: "Code
enforcement has always been a very counterproductive way of
trying to help the poor. It usually sacrifices the adequate
in favor of the ideal."
The Census Bureau denies responsibility for
of poor people because the bureau does not release the
precise names and addresses of housing-code violators. It
makes a similar argument about events that occurred in 1942,
when the Census Bureau provided the Army with a list of
exactly how many Japanese-Americans lived in given
neighborhoods, making it easy to round them up for internment
during World War II.
Census Bureau spokesman Ray Bancroft insists
that this was
not a breach of confidentiality because the bureau did not
give out the names or exact addresses of Japanese-Americans.
This is like someone claiming he bears no responsibility for
setting loose on your block a wolf that just happened to gnaw
on your leg -- simply because he didn't set the wolf free at
your doorstep and tell the wolf to bite you personally.
The IRS in 1983 attempted (largely unsuccessfully)
combine census data with private mailing lists in order to
track down people who don't file income taxes. As computer
technology advances, the ability of the IRS to "abuse" census
data will increase. As David Burnham, author of the
forthcoming "The IRS: A Law Unto Itself," says: "The IRS will
try it again. As marketing lists become more complete and
accurate, the IRS will become more able to combine them with
census information to track people down."
Information on race and home ownership is used
allocations of housing units that are discriminatory under
the Civil Rights Act of 1984. Oxnard Park, Calif., uses
census data to discover areas where landlords illegally
discriminate against families with children. Information on
occupations is used by corporations and government attorneys
to construct affirmative-action quotas for different
industries. Information on "place of birth" is used by the
Civil Rights Commission as a baseline for determining
discrimination by national origin. Even though the census is
especially inaccurate with regard to minorities (who often
prefer not to be counted), census data are increasingly being
used to construct proofs of prejudice and discrimination.
But the more intrusive government becomes, the
information it will get. The Census Bureau is expecting a
sharp decrease in the percentage of households that
voluntarily mail back their census forms -- from 83% in 1980
to 78% in 1990.
A lower response rate will sharply increase
the costs of
doing the census. The cost per capita of the census has
increased from $121 in 1970 to a projected $1,040 in 1990 --
a cost spiral that almost makes the Pentagon look good. (The
total census cost next year is expected to weigh in at $2.6
While most information-intensive industries
computers to sharply lower their costs of operation, the
Census Bureau has repeatedly botched its operations and
squandered millions. The bureau will need to recruit 300,000
census takers next year to go around and knock on doors. But,
unless the nation has a major recession between now and then,
the efforts to recruit temporary help could be a big failure,
and the entire census effort could run aground. Recruitment
is already running into difficulty in many areas.
The more information the government collects
the more control the government will have over people. When
there are hundreds of thousands of pages of federal, state
and local rules and regulations, almost every citizen must be
guilty of something. And with millions of government
employees in this nation, there are too many people with an
incentive to abuse government information to fill their
quotas of citations, arrests and investigations.
Mr. Bovard, a 1980 census taker, is an associate
analyst for the Competitive Enterprise Institute