Some think we need a new, more intrusive census

Some think we need a new, more intrusive census
Jason E. Miczek

The results of the 2020 census have finally been compiled with an initial report on the findings of the survey being released this month. Not everyone is happy with the results, however. In fact, some social justice advocates are quite upset. The primary reason for this is that minority residents were allegedly undercounted by greater margins than in previous surveys. On top of that, a different, annual survey tracking population changes wound up being scrapped entirely because the data was considered to be too unreliable. With that in mind, there are calls for a retooling of how the decennial census is conducted. But the new system, were it to be adopted, would be far more intrusive than the one currently in use and generate even more databases of citizens’ private data that would be entrusted to the federal government. (Associated Press)

Is it time to rethink the census and other surveys that measure changes in the U.S. population?

Policymakers and demographers have been asking that question since results released by the U.S. Census Bureau this month showed Black, Hispanic, American Indian and other minority residents were undercounted at greater rates in 2020 than in the previous decade.

On the top of that, results from a version of its most comprehensive survey that compares year-to-year changes in U.S. life had to be scrapped because disruptions caused by the pandemic produced fewer responses in 2020.

The first question we should be asking about this proposal is precisely how these analysts know how far off the count was at all, to say nothing of the specific counts of various minorities. In order to know that the number is wrong, you would first have to know what the actual number is, right? And if you already know that number, what’s the point of bothering with the count to begin with? The Constitution mandates that a census be taken, but it’s entirely silent on how that needs to be done. If you already have a foolproof way to determine the numbers, let’s just use your technique.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying I believe the census numbers are 100% accurate. Far from it, in fact. They’re probably off by a lot and have been every time we’ve done it. But the methods under discussion to “fix” it are quite troubling. It’s being suggested that the the innocently-named “Frames Program” could be fully developed and tied to the existing census form records. The Frames Program would collect all manner of data on every citizen including your IRS tax records, your employment history, and even your record of registering at the DMV. Even the school records of children could go into the mix. All of these data sources would be linked together and tied to the census system to come up with an allegedly much more complete picture of everyone in the country.

Given what we already know about the ubiquitous way that the federal government collects and stores data on its citizens, even when they’re not supposed to do it (look no further than the gun sales database at the ATF), do you really trust Uncle Sam to have that sort of a master database tracking every aspect of your waking life? Of course they are promising that the information collected would only be used to complete the census and not be shared with other agencies. Do you believe that? If so, I have a lovely bridge over the Hudson River I could let go for a very reasonable price.

The complaints driving this initiative don’t simply focus on questions of a flawed process producing inaccurate results, of course. They specifically call out the fact that the undercounting disproportionately impacts Black, Hispanic, and Native American residents. (They mysteriously forgot to mention Asians again.) But the very same report goes on to blame the undercounting on “the pandemic, natural disasters and political interference from the Trump administration.” They also claim that undercounting minorities “has been persistent for decades.” Well, if it’s been persistent for decades, it was going on long before either Trump’s political career or the pandemic showed up on our radar screens, right?

You can’t have it both ways. It’s not racism if you believe the pandemic caused the undercounts, and I have no doubt the lockdowns in 2020 and people’s reluctance to answer their doors or handle mail likely had an impact. But none of this is an excuse to launch the biggest of all Big Brother tracking databases in the history of the nation. If the current census system isn’t working properly, fix it. And do it in a way that only collects data needed to determine the total number of people, not how many times you called in sick to work last year or if you forgot to get your car inspected.

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