Using the U.S. census as a teachable moment

March 15, 2010 | By | 6 Replies More

I received my census form in the mail today. I don’t generally think twice about it – I understand why the government needs this information to allocate representation, funding, etc.

But the insert caught my eye: the Census Bureau took the time to tell me that I don’t need to worry about what they’re going to do with my personal information. It is, after all, protected by law. Here’s an excerpt from the Census Bureau website:

We depend on your cooperation and trust, and promise to protect the

Public Domain Image

Public Domain Image From U.S. Census Bureau

confidentiality of your information. Title 13 of the U.S. Code protects the confidentiality of all your information and violating this law is a crime with severe penalties. In addition, other federal laws, including the Confidential Statistical Efficiency Act and the Privacy Act reinforce these protections.

Obviously the Census Bureau considers these assurances regarding the legal protection of privacy to be crucial to getting honest answers. I’m not surprised – the information could certainly be used to identify likely tax evasion, immigration status, even occupancy codes. It is very sensitive information in its raw, unaggregated form.

This isn’t my first census form. I’ve had the opportunity to participate in the previous two censuses. But for me, for the first time, I am not reassured by their claim.

After all, I’m pretty sure that warrant-less wiretaps are illegal too. As is torture – isn’t it? I believe the evidence is strong that our government has authorized or allowed both activities. Certainly it was necessary to pass legislation giving telecommunications companies immunity from prosecution for participating in wiretaps. I’m no legal expert but to this citizen that means that the wiretaps are acknowledged to be illegal – we just won’t do anything about it.

So, how can I have any faith that the Census Bureau would live up to it’s claims? How can anyone?

But it’s an opportunity. This is one of those “teachable moments” that a parent, or teacher would apply to an unruly child. What more natural consequence could there be for lawless behavior by the government than to say “You know what? I won’t tell you that information because I don’t trust you to act in good faith with it.” The census, as an opportunity for civil feedback, is a perfect time to teach that lesson. I only wish that it could be recognized as civil feedback instead of the apathy that it would undoubtedly be labeled as.


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Category: American Culture, Corruption, Politics, Privacy

About the Author ()

Tim is a orthogonal thinker residing on a spinning orb.

Comments (6)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:


    Welcome to DI. I thought you might find this blurb from Wikipedia to be of interest:

    Under the Roosevelt administration the FBI, using primarily census records, compiled (1939–1941) the Custodial Detention Index ("CDI") on citizens, enemy aliens, and foreign nationals, who might be dangerous. The Second War Powers Act of 1941 repealed the legal protection of confidential census data, which was not restored until 1947. This information facilitated the internment of Japanese-Americans, following the Japanese attack on the U.S. at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and the internment of Italian- and German-American internment following the United States's entry into World War II.

  2. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Hi Tim. I came to make the same point as Erich, so I guess I'll just have to add some more recent history. The New York Times reported in 2004:

    The Census Bureau's decision to give to the Department of Homeland Security data that identified populations of Arab-Americans was the modern-day equivalent of its pinpointing Japanese-American communities when internment camps were opened during World War II, members of an advisory board told the agency's top officials Tuesday.

    ''This for the Arab-American community is 1942,'' said Barry Steinhardt, a civil liberties lawyer and member of the panel, the Decennial Census Advisory Committee. ''Thousands of Arab-Americans have been rounded up and deported.''

    The criticism came at a daylong special meeting held at the Census Bureau's headquarters in this Washington suburb to discuss the disclosure this summer that on two occasions after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the agency provided comprehensive reports to Homeland Security listing Arab-American populations by city and ZIP code.

    I've given this a lot of thought over the past few months, and I think our form will be returned with the sole answer "2".

  3. Tim Repole says:

    Erich, Brynn: Thanks for the informative replies. You've taken what was an abstract concern for me and made it very concrete. Considering that history it's hard to imagine that they'd be bold enough to put those reassurances in the envelope with the form.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    My parakeet was apparently trying to tell me that much of the census form was for the birds.

    <img alt="" src="; class="alignnone" width="384" height="319" />

    I think my parakeet was most distressed by the "race" question. Me too. If the government can present even one thoughtful scientist who can explain that "race" is a meaning concept, I would be willing to enter some information. Until then, the "race" question is gibberish to me.

    <img alt="" src="; class="alignnone" width="384" height="273" />

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Tim: My census arrived today (as you can see from my photos above). I did laugh at the note that accompanied the census:

    "Your answers will only be used for statistical purposes, and no other purpose."

    Understood, I think. But then tell me, U.S. government. How will those STATISTICS be used? As if a statistic is an end in itself . . . They truly must think we're stupid.

  6. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Some suggestions for the Race-Other box:

    Indy 500

    Tour de France

    Ironman Triathalon


    Daytona 500 (or any other NASCAR event)



    Baja 1000

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