Census Bureau like a nosy neighbor: annoying but harmless

By Jayson Jacoby March 19, 2010 09:42 am

I heard Lars Larson deliver quite the verbal lashing to a couple of Census Bureau workers on his radio program the other afternoon.

I was amused, but also a trifle disappointed.

Not that he’s likely to ever seek my counsel, but I’d prefer that Lars focus his prodigious persuasive abilities and piercing sarcasm on matters rather more malignant than the federal government’s once-every-decade head count.

The increasingly deft way Congress has of getting through a trillion of our dollars, for instance — a task which takes lawmakers considerably less than 10 years.

By comparison, the government asking me how many people live in my house seems an innocuous, and comparatively cheap, exercise.

Also, this go around they’re not interested in the number of toilets I’ve got. Or how much water each flush uses.

But Lars seemed pretty upset about certain of the 10 questions which are on the 2010 Census form (a document that is shockingly concise by government standards, by the way). Nor is he much happy about a law that authorizes the feds to fine people $5,000 if they don’t answer every question.

Lars tried several times to goad the Census people into saying that anybody who leaves one of the spaces blank could be subject to that fine.

I’ll admit the idea is troubling.

Imagine, the government docks you five grand because you forgot to jot down whether you own your home or rent.

(Or, worse still, because you forgot one of your kids. Which could get you into a different sort of trouble.)

Except both of the Bureau workers told Lars that during the 2000 count the government didn’t fine a single person for ignoring the Census.

This seems to me the salient point.

I suppose it’s silly for the Census Bureau to keep that $5,000 stick in its arsenal, even if the Bureau never swings it.

But I’m not going to worry overmuch should I decide, when I sit down with my Census form, to suggest that if the government is so keen to know the shade of my skin that it knock on my front door and see for itself.

Probably, though, I’ll just check the “white” box and have done with it.

I don’t particularly care whether the government is aware of my Caucasian ancestry. It’s no secret, certainly. I mean I go out in public, uncamouflaged, all the time.

Nor, unlike Lars seems to be, am I bothered by the idea that the government knows my phone number and date of birth.

The government already has got me pretty well pegged, so far as I can tell, even without the benefit of a Census survey.

Every year around my birthday, for example, the government mails me a Social Security report that shows, by way of a neatly tabulated table, every taxable dollar I’ve ever earned.

Which, frankly, is a ledger I’d rather not see, even once a year.

The sheer mediocrity of my financial achievements, laid bare, is awfully depressing, which explains why the government’s records are a whole lot more complete than my own.

Lars, in arguing his case against the Census, suggested that identity thieves might profitably mine the Bureau for information — by swiping Census laptops left lying about by careless enumerators, for instance.

Personally, I’m far more fearful that somebody will rifle through my mailbox. It’s at least as easy to get into as a laptop, and unlike a laptop the mail just sits there in the box, utterly defenseless, for a couple hours most days.

And considering the credit limit some lenders think I’m worthy of, I probably would look like a prime victim to any shady character who sorted through the daily stack of offers.

(Maybe I should tape a copy of my latest Social Security report to the mailbox; that ought to convince even a desperate swindler to look for richer realms than my mine to plunder.)

From what I’ve read, though, identity thieves would prefer to know my Social Security number than, say, my gender.

And the government already has the former.

Which makes sense, since the government assigned that number to me in the first place.

That was almost 40 years ago. The government has apparently managed, in the ensuing decades, to keep the contents of its dossier on me close to the vest. My identify has yet to be appropriated, at any rate.

Besides which, I doubt many identity thieves — successful ones, anyway, and who cares about the ones who are lousy at it — depend on data that’s gathered only once every 10 years.

I suspect identity thieves, like most thieves, have a personality that leans toward immediate gratification. This is why they dig around in Dumpsters.

What seems to me the gaping hole in Lars’ indictment against the Census, though, is this: Almost every piece of data the Bureau asks us for is already available, via public records, to anyone with a modicum of sense.

If I want to know who owns a house down the street I can glean the answer, in less than a minute, from the county assessor’s Web site.

It might well be, of course, that Lars doesn’t believe the Census Bureau is quite so sinister as he implies. Perhaps he boxed the agency’s ears merely to illustrate his distaste for the whole broad sweep of governmental nonsense.

I can go along with that.

I think it’s ludicrous, to cite only one example, that the government lets people mine for gold and run their cattle in wilderness areas, but says I can’t ride my bicycle there.

What I can’t do is work up any real enmity for the Census Bureau, which reminds me of nothing so much as a nosy neighbor — annoying, but ultimately harmless.

It seems significant to me that the Census has managed to avoid the nasty reputation that afflicts so many government enterprises, even though the Bureau has been around since America was a political infant.

It’s right there in the Constitution, in fact, which implies that the Founding Fathers, who were hardly advocates of vast bureaucracies, thought it an appropriate duty for the new republic to keep track of how many people live within its borders.

And although I’m sure Thomas Jefferson and his cohorts would, much like Lars, decry the bloated regulatory beast their wondrous creation has become, I’d wager that those statesman would confine their criticism to those intrusions which are both more frequent, and more punitive, than the Census Bureau’s.

But then again I might be addled still by the effects of having done my taxes a few weeks back.

Now there’s a branch of government with real clout (and if you’ve been audited I’ll bet you felt like you’d been clouted upside your head).

The Census Bureau wants your phone number, your age and, when it’s feeling frisky, to poke around in your bathroom fixtures.

The IRS wants your money.

And when the IRS talks about fines, it’s as serious as your dad was that time you wrecked his car.


Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.