In his book Seeing Like a State, James Scott commented on the role played by census data in the rise of the modern state: “If we imagine a state that has no reliable means of enumerating and locating its population, gauging its wealth, and mapping its land, resources, and settlements, we are imagining a state whose interventions in that society are necessarily crude.” Enumeration not only facilitated “a more finely tuned system of taxation and conscription” but allowed the state to intervene effectively throughout society. Although it is often viewed as a benign or annoying process, the census can be used as a powerful tool of social control and social engineering.
The United States government recognizes that power. It is currently engaged in an unprecedented push to count the people, citizen and noncitizen alike, living in the country. In preparation for the 2010 census, state employees even took GPS readings for every front door in America so that individuals can be located with computer accuracy.
On January 25 Census Bureau Director Robert Groves officially launched the 2010 Census when he arrived in the Alaskan fishing village of Noorvik, population 650. A symbolic dogsled run over the frozen tundra emphasized that no community was too remote or too small to escape the government’s head count. By mid-March 450 million census forms will begin arriving by mail in less exotic zip codes; census assistance centers have been established to help people complete the ten-question form. April 1, also known as April Fool’s Day, is officially recognized as “Census Day.” In late April another mailing will either thank people for responding or remind them to do so. Then census workers will knock on the GPSed doors of nonrespondents; they will do so repeatedly, if necessary.
In January the San Jose Mercury reported, “The U.S. Census Bureau has created a hiring boom. Expecting to hire up to 1.5 million Americans this year….The federal government expects to spend $14.7 billion to count every man, woman and child living in the country.” The jobs range from office clerks to supervisors and door-knockers. Their livelihoods require compliance from the American public.
Compliance is required by law; Section 221 of Title 13 of U.S. Code, Chapter 7, Subchapter II spells out several types of illegal responses to the census:
- Refusal or neglect to answer questions; false answers;
- Giving suggestions or information with intent to cause inaccurate enumeration of population;
- Refusal, by owners, proprietors, etc., to assist census employees;
- Failure to answer questions affecting companies, businesses, religious bodies, and other organizations; false answers.
Fines can range from $100 to $5,000. Nevertheless, the law is rarely enforced, and the Census Bureau relies heavily on public cooperation. To gain widespread voluntary compliance, authorities must overcome two major obstacles: apathy and a suspicion of how government will use the data. We’ll focus on the latter.
Opposition to the 2010 census has been less active than in 2000. (The Constitution mandates a census every ten years.) In 2000 approximately 16 percent of households received a “long form,” which contained more than 100 questions, many of which were highly personal. By some reports, in the first week after the 2000 mailing, the Census Bureau received over half a million calls, most of which complained about the length and intrusiveness of the questionnaire.
This year the long form has been eliminated. There are only ten questions. The comparative brevity does not reflect a new government respect for privacy, but merely a shift in strategy. The decennial census data are now supplemented by the American Community Survey (ACS), which is distributed yearly to select households.
Nevertheless, many people consider the 2010 form to be a violation of privacy. For example, one question asks, “Is this house, apartment or mobile home owned by you or someone in the house with a mortgage? Owned free and clear? Rented? Occupied without payment of rent?”
Other than privacy, what other objections commonly arise?
One objection is constitutional. The Census Bureau draws on constitutional authority but the questions have little connection with the original intention, which was to apportion representatives and direct taxes. Critics ask why, then, does the government needs to know if they rent or own. They claim the census is not an expression of the Constitution but the creation of a bloated government abusing a limited mandate.