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The Census And The Desire For Small Government

Fri Feb 05 2010
Robert Groves
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In this job I talk to people from all walks of life, with diverse viewpoints about our country. The 2010 Census is conducted by a Federal government agency, using taxpayer money. Thus, the first reaction to the census is often shaped by one’s attitudes toward the larger Federal government. Some first view the census with a great deal of cynicism.

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I talked to a few friends recently who truly want a small Federal government and wish to keep it out of their day-to-day lives as much as possible. They view the census as part of “big government;” further, they view it as an unnecessary intrusion of privacy.

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As we seek to count everyone, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this point of view.

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First, it’s relevant, I believe, to note that at the very moment of birth of the US, before there were any programs of the Federal government, when there were only four cabinet-level departments (State, Treasury, War, Justice), there was the mandate to do the census. In the US Constitution immediately after the words that establish the Senate and the House of Representatives, there appears (In Article 1, Section 2) the mandate to do the census every 10 years. The census was the tool to assure that the House of Representatives provided equal representation to all persons.

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I suppose that the founding fathers might have given census-taking as a responsibility to the states, but individual states have a real incentive to maximize their population counts for the benefit of more members in the House. So it makes sense that the founding fathers decided that this activity needed to be a responsibility of the Federal government. It has remained so for every one of the 22 censuses conducted since 1790.

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The First Federal Congress established a special committee to prepare the questions to be included in the first census. The suggestions were likely debated in the House, and according to a report in a Boston newspaper, Virginia Representative James Madison recommended at least five of the six questions. Under the direction of Thomas Jefferson, the secretary of state, marshals took the census in the original 13 states plus the districts of Kentucky, Maine, and Vermont, and the Southwest Territory (Tennessee).

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It is true that the Federal government is larger than it was in 1790. However, in times of small governments and big governments, the census has always been conducted by the Federal government. The census is undeniably not a creation of big government.

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On the 10-question 2010 Census, we’re going back to a census that is more like 1790 than any other. You’ll find three questions directly from 1790: an inquiry about the number of people in a household, a question about gender, and a question about race. The genius of the Founders was taking a tool historically used for government oppression and making it a tool of political empowerment for the governed. They accomplished that goal in 1790 and we’re about to continue that tradition in 2010.

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Second, it’s relevant to note that for those households that don’t return the form, the Federal government will have to spend more taxpayer money. To have a good census, we will hire and send out census takers to collect the information in face-to-face interviews from those not completing the form. Not taking the 10 minutes needed to fill out the form because one doesn’t like big government ironically merely acts to increase the size of the Federal government workforce.

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Third, some of my friends have concerns that the 2010 Census is an intrusion of privacy. On this, it helps to show them the 2010 form. It asks only for name, age, gender, ethnicity, race, whether they own or rent their home, and whether they sometimes live elsewhere. (We ask for phone number to contact folks when we can’t understand some of their answers; then we destroy their phone number.) The 2010 Census has been limited only to questions that are absolutely necessary.

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For some of my friends, these observations are persuasive; for others, not. Most admit they hadn’t really thought much about it.

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Those with strong views about the Federal government ought to make sure they are fairly represented in Congress. The 2010 Census is the tool for each of us to make sure we get the number of House members we deserve, as a way to achieve the government we want.

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Director Robert Groves

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