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Numbering the people

Culture | Census forms demonstrate the new role of the government

Issue: "Dr. Laura: Taking static," April 8, 2000

King David got into big trouble when he presumed to take a census of all of his people. Exactly why this was such a sin is not completely clear, though it seems to have involved an attitude of reliance on his own earthly power rather than that of the Lord. Certainly Moses was right to number the people. And a census of the Roman Empire was used by God to bring Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem.

The current United States census, required by the Constitution every 10 years, is hardly of biblical proportions. But it nevertheless calls to mind Caesar Augustus, who numbered the people so that "all the world should be taxed." This is surely the ultimate fantasy of every government leader who claims sovereignty over every facet of his subjects' lives: taxing the whole world. And everything in it.

The census form certainly expresses particular political assumptions and, indeed, a worldview (see WORLD, March 25). Of all the questions that it could ask, why does it ask some and not others? And what does it reveal about the interests of the government collecting all of this data?

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"Census 2000" projects a government very different from that of Census 1900. Consider the cover letter that has gone to every American household:

"Your answers are important," it explains. "First, the number of representatives each state has in Congress depends on the number of people living in the state." This is correct and is the Constitutional reason for the census. But then it goes on.

"The second reason may be more important to you and your community. The amount of government money your neighborhood receives depends on your answers. That money gets used for schools, employment services, housing assistance, roads, services for children and the elderly, and many other local needs."

There, in a nutshell, is the growth over the last century, not only in government, but in the assumptions about what government should do. Taking care of children, providing for the elderly, helping people with housing, and getting them jobs are now the province of the federal government.

The way it takes care of all of these social needs is to give money to local "neighborhoods." That is to say, all the country should be taxed, whereupon some of the money will then be doled back. State, county, and city governments are reduced to being recipients of federal grants.

And according to the census form, urging that everyone fill out their forms, "the second reason"-getting government money-"may be more important to you and your community" than being represented in Congress.

"That is to say," observes writer Mary M. Stolzenbach, "the right our fathers bled and died for-the right to elect their government and be represented in it-takes second place to the governmental gimme."

The census form itself has attracted the most criticism. All of those questions about what race you are. This form at least responds to criticisms of the 1990 census to include more options and to recognize that many Americans do not belong to one particular race at all. And that being "Hispanic" has to do with language and culture, not race. But the same is true of most other ethnic and racial categories. The confusion of race with culture is dangerous, hearkening back to the old biological and racial determinism that seems to be returning, though in a more benevolent-seeming package.

And then there are the relationship questions for each person in the household, including, in addition to kinship ties and innocuous arrangements such as "roommate," the new social category "unmarried partner."

This is just the short form. The one-in-six households that get the long form have to fill out 38 minutes worth of pages, in which they are told, by force of law, to divulge highly personal information. Their income, occupation, and employment status, the size and value of their homes, the number of bathrooms they have, the nature of their disabilities, their educational level, and the like-all must be reported to the government.

Ironically, the federal government has deduced a "right of privacy" to allow for abortion and to restrict attempts to regulate pornography and other socially harmful behavior. But the government clearly does not consider itself bound by these concerns. Since rights, according to the current legal fiction, are granted by the government (rather than being "endowed by their Creator"), the government would logically have the power to suspend them at will.

Citizens filling out their census forms, as required by law, would do well to remember the Constitutional purpose of the exercise-to enable them to assume their rightful role in a democratic republic and to empower them to take control of their own government. It is fitting that the census year is also an election year.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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