Friday, April 25, 2014

One Instance Where the Government Can Keep a Secret

“Good afternoon, chefie, I am the census taker.”
“Well, you got me at a busy time.”
“Oh, it will only take a few moments. Now, where were you born?”
“Lake Winapasakee.”
“How do you spell that?”
“W-O, W-O-O-F … Make it Lake Erie, I got an uncle there.”

Classified military and diplomatic secrets seem to hit the headlines almost daily, but information about how many grandchildren Uncle Harry had during the Depression was a deep, dark secret until just the other day, when the Census Bureau, after 72 years, released its data for the 1940 enumeration.

Under the U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 2: “The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.”

The original idea behind the census was to determine the allocation of congressional seats and electoral votes, and if that limited purpose had been adhered to things wouldn’t have gotten as messy as they are now, because the Census Bureau and the data it collects have become an example of a proverbial political football.

In retrospect, it may have been a major mistake to move the census out from under the judicial branch to the executive (post-1870), where overweening ambition is thwarted only with great difficulty.

It doesn’t help that the Bureau’s enumeration procedures are subject to error by design:

The Census Bureau bases its decision about whom to count on the concept of usual residence. Usual residence, a principle established by the Census Act of 1790, is defined as the place a person lives and sleeps most of the time. The Census Bureau uses special procedures to ensure that those without conventional housing are counted; however, data from these operations are not considered as accurate as data obtained from traditional procedures.

Wikipedia, “United States Census”

Sometimes the Bureau’s methodology can benefit one or another political party:

The Census also employs the practice of hot deck imputation to assign data to housing units where occupation status is unknown. This practice has effects across many areas, but is seen by some as controversial because it may increase representation for reliably Democratic districts. However, the practice was ruled constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in Utah v. Evans. — Ibid.

Even people who aren’t U.S. citizens get counted:

Decennial U.S. Census figures are based on actual counts of persons dwelling in U.S. residential structures. They include citizens, non-citizen legal residents, non-citizen long-term visitors and illegal immigrants. … The practice of including non-citizens in the official census figures is controversial because the census is used for the apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives, and derived from that, of electors to the Electoral College. — Ibid.

As for criminals:

Groups like the Prison Policy Initiative assert that the census practice of counting prisoners as residents of prisons, not their pre-incarceration addresses, leads to misleading information about racial demographics and population numbers. — Ibid.

And then there are those who fall between the cracks:

Certain American citizens living overseas are specifically excluded from being counted in the census even though they may vote. Only Americans living abroad who are “Federal employees (military and civilian) and their dependents living overseas with them” are counted. “Private U.S. citizens living abroad who are not affiliated with the Federal government (either as employees or their dependents) will not be included in the overseas counts. These overseas counts are used solely for reapportioning seats in the U. S. House of Representatives.” — Ibid.

When you regard all of the foregoing, it’s rather unrealistic to expect an accurate census, even in the age of the computer.

You have to wonder why the Defense Department can’t seem to keep a secret for 72 minutes, much less 72 years:

The census records and data specific to individual respondents are not available to the public until 72 years after a given census was taken, but aggregate statistical data derived from the census are released as soon as they are available. The 72-year rule is not law, but a rule posed by Roy V. Peel, Census Bureau Director, in a letter to Wayne C. Grover, Archivist, on August 26, 1952. — Ibid.

In less than a generation from the nation’s founding, however, the simple head count had morphed into an embryonic political football:

The history of the United States census dates back to pre-Revolutionary times. It is thought that the census was developed to establish an equitable way to distribute the burden of the Revolutionary War, both economically and in manpower. The expense of the war was proposed to be distributed based upon population, among the 13 colonies, as the new United States government was created. In order to make this uniform, the concept of payment by distribution was included in the Articles of Confederation. The original Congress finally voted that the first distribution method would be by the cumulative value of property within each State. Enumeration of population became the chosen method directly after the Revolutionary War.

Electronic Privacy Information Center, “The Census and Privacy”

… which, under the circumstances, seems reasonable — but then:

The minimal enumeration of the population described in the Constitution was quickly expanded to include business and socioeconomic information. Jefferson was a main proponent of expanding the enumeration, as he wished to obtain “a more detailed view of the inhabitants” of the country. The first enumeration counted free persons, including women, children, and those bound to service, but only counted three-fifths of slaves and excluded untaxed American Indians. As of March 1, 1790, it was directed that U.S. Marshals gather the name of head of families, number of people in each family, all other free people, and slaves. In addition to this information, James Madison sought occupational and industrial information, but Congress did not authorize collection of this information in the first census.

Nevertheless, as historian Robert C. Davis argues, “the crucial point is that the first act pushed beyond the simple constitutional provision, thereby establishing a precedent for the enormous expansion of the census in the following century.” By 1800, the census collected more refined age information; by 1810 the census collected economic information; by 1820 the census collected more detailed occupational information; by 1830 the census collected information on physical disability; and by 1840 the census collected investment and productivity information. Through this expansion, protections were developed to maintain the confidentiality of economic questions, but the population survey was publicly posted until 1850 in order to allow individuals to check for errors.

After the first census, Thomas Jefferson and the American Philosophical Society lobbied for the expansion of reported census information on age, birthplace, and occupation for the purpose of ascertaining “the causes which influence life and health” and “the conditions and vocations of our fellow citizens.” [For shame, Thomas, for shame!] Since then, the census became an instituted method of gathering information about American Society.

The U.S. Census has been administered every ten years since the Revolutionary War, and it was intended to be used primarily for the apportionment of Representatives for Congress. The complexity of the census has grown with the expansion of the United States; the U.S. government has found extensive uses for census related statistics. The census has also been crucial in tracking the population needs of various regions and understanding the structural composition of the nation’s population. Politically, the census has become a tool in the process of congressional reapportionment. — Ibid.

Thus, the Census Bureau has been gradually transformed into yet another component of an intrusive and oppressive federal bureaucracy that gives every indication of expanding without limit.

Addendum:

Is it barely possible this could be an accurate depiction of the 1940 census?

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