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Nosy Census?

March 30, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Some Republicans — some Republicans in Congress are telling their constituents they don’t have to answer any questions on their census forms that they believe invade their privacy. Saturday is the deadline for mailing back the forms.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said yesterday that while people should fill out the basic census information — like name, age, gender and race — “if people feel their privacy is being invaded by those additional questions, they can choose not to answer those questions.” Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel and a number of Republican congressmen were quoted as giving similar advice.

The questions at issue are contained in the so-called “long census form” that was mailed to roughly one in six American households. While the short form, sent to everyone else, asks just eight basic questions, the long form contains 53 questions, ranging from your income, occupation and the size of your mortgage payments, to how you get to work, how you heat your home and how many bathrooms you have. Census Bureau Director Kenneth Prewitt responded to the objections today.

KENNETH PREWITT: We have tried to explain the long form, the need for these data, time and again in different forums. We’ve certainly tried to explain it to the members of the U.S. Congress. Every one of the questions of course went to the U.S. Congress three years ago and then again two years ago.

Three years ago we submitted to the Congress, these are the topics that, as best we understand the law of the land, we have to ask. Do you agree with us? And the answer is yes or no. If it’s no, fine. But if it’s yes — and it was yes for the most part — then a year later, that is, two years ago today, as a matter of fact, we submitted to Congress the way we were going to ask the questions. Do you have any trouble with the way in which we are asking them? Two years ago. And that went to all 535 members of the United States Congress. And we got a few comments back and we took those into account and tried to make modifications.

We are only asking questions that are there because there is a piece of legislation, there is a law that’s either mandated in a law or the law cannot be administered in the absence of this information.

MARGARET WARNER: For more, we turn to two members of Congress: Republican Nick Smith of Michigan, who plans to introduce legislation reducing the fine for not filling out one’s census form, and Democrat Carolyn Maloney of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Census Committee.

What is so objectionable about these questions, Congressman Smith?

REP. NICK SMITH, R-Michigan: Well, I think many of the questions are very intrusive. I think probably right now there’s a nervousness on behalf of the American people that government is getting too much into their business. So, some of the questions are very, very personal. And you heard, just heard, that all the questions have a basis. And that’s true.

But I think the reason the Census Bureau is looking at how to do away with the long form probably verifies that we don’t need to get all the answers to all these questions by asking everybody in the United States what their feeling is, if they’re having particular problems concentrating, if they have particular problems learning, so I think there’s no question that some of the questions are very intrusive and eventually the plan is, according to Dan Miller, a member from Florida, is that probably by the next go-around there won’t be any long form.

MARGARET WARNER: Congresswoman Maloney, tell me your view about why these questions are necessary. For instance, how many bathrooms do you have or one the congressman just referred to. It asks — Question 17: Whether you have a physical, mental or emotional condition that makes it hard to concentrate or dress or bathe yourself.

REP. CAROLYN MALONEY, D-New York: Well, Margaret, believe it or not, there are many areas in America where people don’t have plumbing. And that’s an important question to ask for really the environment and for designation of federal funds that are tied to programs. We need to know how many disabled people, how many people have mental problems in the country. All of the questions are tied to laws that were passed by Congress. The Constitution requires that we have a census every 10 years.

And as the director stated at the beginning of your program, earlier, three years ago, two years ago, every single Congress member received this book from the Census Bureau. It showed absolutely every single question and asked if they had any objection to it. And the time to raise an objection was during the years of hearings and oversights and not two days before Census Day when every resident in America should be filling out their form and being part of the great civic ceremony that is the census because the census is tremendously important not only for data and response to programs, it really — all of our funding formulas are tied to census numbers. Over $2 trillion will be allocated in the next 10 years based on this data.

So if you’re encouraging, as some members are, their residents and their communities not to fill out the form, they’re only hurting their localities because the census shows us where we need schools, where we need senior programs, and it’s incredibly important and it’s — everyone should be excited about filling out the form. And I checked with the Census Bureau. They have a Web site that shows how many people have filled it out. Over 49 percent of the residents in America have filled it out. The rest should fill it out tonight — the remaining people. I think it’s important that people should know there’s a Web site that you can go to and it gives you the reason for each question and cites the law that it’s tied to.

REP. NICK SMITH: Margaret, may I?

MARGARET WARNER: Please, do. What about the basic point, I think you acknowledged it in your first answer, that this information is needed and is tied to different laws Congress has passed?

REP. NICK SMITH: Well, Congress has — is passing more and more laws. Congress wants to find out what’s wrong with you and then fix it. So, we have a very intrusive system. And the more government supports you, the more they’re going to demand that they know about you. I think there’s greater nervousness on the part of the people this year maybe than there was 10 years ago or so. People are more suspicious of government. They’re more concerned about the invasiveness of government.

Government now has the ability to listen in on your phone conversations, to know where you travel, how you travel, how much money you’ve got in the bank, what kind of bills and what doctor you go to, to go cover those bills. You know, in the name of water conservation, government is now telling you how much water you’re going to be allowed to have in your toilet. In the name of child safety, they’re telling you what toys you’re going to be allowed to buy for your children. I think we’ve got to be careful about the intrusiveness. A lot of these questions are curiosity questions that might be used in policy sometime, somehow.

MARGARET WARNER: But you’re saying they’re not required under various forms of legislation.

REP. NICK SMITH: Absolutely. They’re not required to have every American — and that’s again, like I said at the beginning of the program, we’re now looking at ways, and Dan Miller, the member from Florida that has oversight, suggested to me this afternoon that no — in the next census, there won’t be a long form. The Census Bureau is working on ways to get this information that’s reasonable. You know, we can take a national survey with a plus or minus two deviation as far as accuracy and just ask several thousands of people. Some of that information found out with that kind of survey effort is going to accommodate most of the needs that we have.

And I think at this time we’ve just got to be very careful. And, again, I’m not suggesting that anybody don’t fill out the form. The basic count is important for revenue sharing, for how we divide up congressional and state legislative districts. I’m just suggesting that if you give the basic information and deny answering some of these other questions but you send in the census report, then the maximum fine would be $10.

MARGARET WARNER: Congresswoman, what about the congressman’s point that a lot of Americans are becoming concerned about how much — not just the government but other data collectors– the health care system, the Internet — know about us?

REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: Well, first of all, Margaret, the form is shorter. The long form is shorter than it was in 1990. It’s four questions shorter, and Mr. — Senator Lott earlier, four months earlier sponsored a bill to add yet another question, a marital status to the long form. So, you can’t have it both ways, asking for more questions and then saying that other questions are optional.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me just ask you this: What will the Census Bureau do if some of the people who got long forms send it back incomplete as some of these Congressmen seem to be suggesting is perfectly OK to do?

REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: Then the Census Bureau will have to send enumerators out to the addresses to get the information. This will cost taxpayers more money. If they fill out their form, then less money needs to be spent to get the accurate information so that we have accurate data that our private sector uses, that our local cities and states use and that our federal government uses.

And to answer my dear friend and colleague, Nick Smith, saying that the questions are, quote, too intrusive, well if you don’t know about the problem, then you don’t have to take the steps to fix them. If we don’t know that people in Mississippi don’t have plumbing and yet do need modern plumbing in certain areas, then it doesn’t have to be fixed. If you don’t know that there are massive poverty areas that you need health care support and other support for families, then you don’t have to fix it. And it’s a responsibility of our government, based on laws that we’ve passed, to help certain areas and certain problems.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman, now why are you proposing this legislation to reduce the fine from $100, I guess for not complying, to $10?

REP. NICK SMITH: Well, I’m saying $10 if you send in your census report that gives the base information. We need the count for a lot of reasons that we discussed. If there are some questions that you feel are intrusive and too personal and that the government can find out in other ways, such as do you have a telephone — you know, Ma Bell and the other telephone companies, that information is available. We don’t need all of these questions individually to ask the millions of, hundreds of millions of Americans. We can do surveys and that’s what we’re going to end up doing 10 years from now.

MARGARET WARNER: Congresswoman, could you support that legislation?

REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: Well, we should certainly put the legislation before the subcommittee and have hearings and make a decision. The time to make major changes in the census is not two days before Census Day. The Census Bureau has not enforced any fines for over 30 years. So, to me, it doesn’t appear to be that big a problem. But we can have a hearing and hear from the director, look at the statistics and hear from the members and the communities on how they feel about it and come forward with a thoughtful response to the legislation which we do throughout the year on many proposals that are put forward. But I must say, I don’t think ever — ever — I don’t remember ever major elected officials standing up and announcing that the census is optional. It’s required by the Constitution. And it’s required by the law.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman, before we go, just respond to one point that the congresswoman raised which is you all got that information a couple of years ago. Did you get that form? Did you see the questions then? Why raise it now?

REP. NICK SMITH: We got the form. I think we were negligent then not sending it out. But still everybody should realize, Margaret, that Congress now has sort of stopped its leadership effort. We’re followers. If the people of this country are concerned about a particular issue, then Congress reacts to it. And the hundreds of calls that have come into my office and I’m sure Carolyn’s office, are indicative of the number of people that are very concerned about this situation and that’s why we’re going to fix it.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thank you both very much.