Mistrust of census process by some people is misplaced, officials say

Read the list of census question

The anti-government sentiment that sparked the Tea Party movement is brewing a backlash of sorts against the upcoming census by people who say it asks too many questions and intrudes on their privacy.

Such census resisters say the Constitution only empowers the Census Bureau to count the number of people in a household. They say that's the only inquiry they'll respond to when the 10-question census forms are mailed to 130 million households in mid-March.

Gabriel Sanchez, the Dallas-based regional census director, says the claim is wrong.

"The truth is, when the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they gave Congress the power to determine how the census is conducted. The U.S. Supreme Court has again and again upheld how the Census Bureau conducts the census," Sanchez said.

The 2010 form is the shortest in modern history, he said, and asks only simple questions such as age, gender, ethnicity and whether a dwelling is owned or rented.

But a household head count is all the census will get from Robyn Leann Burwell, 30, of Hawley.

"My position, at this point, is that the only constitutional part of it is for them to do a head count," she said. "The bottom line is, I feel like the government has been trying to find ways to get information they don't necessarily need."

Burwell, an English professor at Abilene Christian University and a Libertarian candidate for state House District 85, and her husband, John, a Libertarian candidate for U.S. House District 13 in West Texas, helped start an Abilene chapter of the 912 Project, a grassroots conservative organization.

"I think it's just really important to look at it as more than a random questionnaire. We should be asking if they really need to ask the questions," Burwell said.

Renee Higgins, a 51-year-old housewife from Merkel and a member of the Abilene 912 Project, agrees with that stance.

"I think the only thing we need to answer is our name and how many people. Beyond that, it's none of their business," said Higgins, who says she has grown increasingly leery of all government entities.

"The overreaching things going on with our government lead people to question things. I question everything they do," Higgins said. "I'm not some nut job. I'm a realist, and I've looked into a lot of things and I question a lot of things."

Higgins says that she filled out the 2000 Census forms but that "I was stupid then, I thought you had to do it. But when they start invading your privacy, you have to draw the line. I was ignorant, but I've learned."

State Demographer Karl Eschbach says that such "independent streaks" have come and gone over the years but that the current fears seem misplaced.

"It's kind of a peculiar concern in an age in which so much is being collected about us by folks other than the government. These are fairly benign questions," said Eschbach, a professor and health researcher at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, noting that the first census, in 1790, asked six questions.

"Clearly, everyone's ability to monitor us has gone way up," he said. "Private industry can track the keystrokes on your computer. You've got people making databanks of your every consumer purchase, and you are worried about the government knowing how you classify yourself by race and ethnicity for purposes of allocation of funds?"

Tool for planners

Many of the concerns appear linked to the American Community Survey, a much more extensive census questionnaire sent to 75,000 households nationwide each month.

The ongoing survey, Sanchez said, is an important tool for local planners, who need to know detailed information like how many toilets are in a home to determine the need for sewage facilities. Questions on commute times help communities identify transportation needs, he said.

Although many census holdouts say they resent the intrusiveness and growth of government, if they don't fill out the forms they'll be visited by a census worker. That will increase the cost of the census, Sanchez said. The Census Bureau projects a 70 percent return rate on the forms, but every 1 percent of noncompliance adds $85 million to the cost, he said.

For both the 10-question form and the community survey, census workers will visit nonresponsive households up to seven times, Sanchez said. And if that doesn't work, the enumerators will contact neighbors for the data.

That is what happened to Breena Fay Rhodes when she didn't respond to "intrusive questions" on the community survey. The 40-year-old McLennan County woman, who home-schools four children, said census workers "harassed" her for months trying to get the information. She would reveal only the number of people in her household.

"I prayed over my decision and did not make that decision lightly," Rhodes wrote in an e-mail. "But I love my country. We Americans have to take a stand for liberty, we have to stand up for what is right. It is wrong for my government to harass and threaten me on my own property in order to get my private information."

Basis for democracy

But the census is a pivotal underpinning of American democracy, says Steve Murdock, a Rice University sociology professor who was the census director for the last year of George W. Bush's presidency.

The agency is only doing what it is constitutionally mandated to do: collecting data necessary for the government to function efficiently and to determine the apportionment of U.S. House seats -- "the ultimate basis for our representative democracy," he said.

"There have always been elements of the census that are a concern to the population," Murdock said. In general, he said, during good economic times, when people have a positive perception of what is happening, "you get a better census count."

"Many argue that the success of the 2000 Census was that economic times were relatively good. There was very much a positive, optimistic view of what was happening in the country, and the census was a beneficiary of that," Murdock said.

Things change tremendously in 10 years, Sanchez said, and the census must adapt.

"This is the first post-9-11 census and this is the first census where there are a lot of questions about confidential information and identity theft," he said. "Ten years ago, nobody had heard of identity theft. We have to be as flexible as possible. This is not an evil government conspiracy."

Adrian J. Murray of the Fort Worth 912 Project said the concerns are overblown.

"I really think there is some hysteria going on here. People need to calm down. We look on government with a healthy skepticism, but this is going too far," he said. "It might be invasive, but it's innocuous. Skepticism is one thing, but paranoia is another."

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