Census Lolwhut?

Michelle Bachmann backed away from her absurd anti-census position nine months ago.  The census has embarked on its most ambitious advertising campaign ever.  And yet today, five days before the April 16 due date, the response rate is just 66%, and as low as 18% in some strongly conservative areas (Southeast Fairbanks, AK, I’m looking at you).  Nor is it mere apathy: There are huge currents of anti-census sentiment all through the conservative movement.  Erick Erickson’s famous comment was actually preceded by an incident in, unsurprisingly, Idaho, where a man really did pull a shotgun on a census enumerator.  What has this modest, inexpensive, constitutional, confidential survey done to piss them all off?  A few things, but they’re all piddling and insignificant.  Then there are the rumors, but they range much farther into the absurd than even the death panels and IRS armies of Obamacare rumorland.  I will be explaining why these rumors are false, but really, by the time you’re on a vendetta against the census, there’s no hope for you, so I’ll mostly be treating it as one of the fascinating phenomena of the wingnut microcosm, to be studied with morbid fascination.

By way of disclaimer, I have worked for the census, but the promised two-month assignment ended up consisting of two half-days of work.  So while I do have direct knowledge of how the census works, I don’t have a vested interest in defending it.

I didn’t realize how widespread anti-census sentiment was until an email about it showed up on My Right-Wing Dad, an archive of right-wing email forwards.  The message itself was not particularly surprising; the surprising thing was that two people popped up in the comments defending it.  So this sentiment, although insane, is relatively widespread.  Let’s take a look at the grievances expressed in the email.

Most are money- or resource-allocation-related; the rest are OMGACORNBROWNPEOPLEILLEGALS!!!11!1

How does it cost $14 BILLION to count 350 million people? That’s $40 per person.

Maybe because people don’t return their forms?  The cost drops precipitously if you return your form, rather than requiring an actual person to come to your door.  Also, is that really so much?  It’s one week’s budget for the Department of Defense, and that covers two years.

Are you really hiring 800,000 people to conduct this count?…Each new hire only has to
count 437.5 people—I could do that in one morning and be done!

That number is almost certainly a fabrication, but there’s more to be done with the census than just going out and counting heads.  There’s deciding which questions to ask and drafting out the forms; there’s address collection and verification; there’s printing, envelope stuffing, and mailing; there’s compiling the returned data and doing statistical analysis; there’s administration and payroll for all those other employees.  And no, even if everyone was magically at home when you visited, you couldn’t count them all in one day.

Why did you think you needed a Super Bowl ad to tell people about the Census? Never mind, I guess that’s obvious since you think you need to send me a letter to tell me that you’re going to send me a letter.

If people would just return their forms, we wouldn’t need all that.

Is it true that every person identified could be “worth” $1,000
in Federal government aid, prompting cities and counties to aggressively
seek out and count illegal residents in their area?

Since you’re so big on the Constitution, I’ll point out that the census clause doesn’t say anything about the legality of the residents counted.  It would be unconstitutional to fail to count people who are here illegally.

How many Acorn activists are working on the Census? Are you comfortable hiring people from an organization that is facing charges of voter registration fraud?

Zero, as it turns out.  Setting aside the fact that all charges against ACORN have been found groundless, there are the important details that a) the census severed all ties with ACORN in September, and b) ACORN doesn’t exist anymore (locally, anyway).

The census only has 10 questions, so why are two of them focused on race? Instead of asking me if I’m Hispanic and THEN asking my race, you could pretty much just add Hispanic to the race question.¿Entiendes?

Legally required.  Not the census’ fault.  Does it bother you that every employer asks about race and ethnicity separately, just like the census?  And you needn’t bask in your own brilliance as if you were the first person to notice this.

Elsewhere on the internet, the same types of irrational fear and anger are displayed.  The general pattern, echoing the general pattern of the internet, is a skeptical but reasonable article pointing out some aspect of the census that could be improved or even arguing in support of the census, followed by a screed of hysterical comments condemning both the census and the federal government in its entirety.  There are the money and efficiency complaints:

Yes the mark of a non republic government…get a postcard stating your questionaire is on the way, then get your census only to be followed up by another piece of propaganda saying do it. Besides a waste of taxpayer money, the gov doesn’t think we are capable of reading our mail. Get rid of these fools.  (OC Watchdog comment)

Now that we know the government says it’s none of our business how they are spending our taxes on the census, you can bet the census will get no information from me. We are NOT OBLIGATED TO FILL OUT THOSE FORMS!  (Corruption Chronicles comment)

I would love to see a constitutional defense of that one.

And there’s the fear of minorities:

Additionally, Uncle Sam is spending $26 million to send Spanish-language questionnaires directly to homes for the first time in the decennial count’s history. More than 13 million will be distributed to neighborhoods with high concentrations of illegal aliens, including Los Angeles County, Miami Florida and Houston Texas. (Corruption Chronicles)

How can anyone honestly answer any questions about “race” until there is a legal definition of what “race” is? Can anyone tell me what the legal definition of the “black” race is? How about the “white” race? And if you think there is such a definition, then tell me what the legal definition of the “Hispanic” race is? And even better, the legal definition of the “Pacific islander” race? Of course there ARE no such definitions, and the last country I know of that tried to make such legal defintions was Nazi Germany. Those questions are so obviously unConstitional that I would think even a Congressman would be able to figure it out, but I guess I’m wrong about that.  (Red State comment)

Like most of the conservatives I know, I resent the race question. I resent it because I know that it is the only piece of information that really matters on that form. Washington doesn’t care how many people live in my house – they care what color those people are.  (Red State comment)

I’m not turning my data over to ACORN census takers.  (Red State comment)

Then there’s the fear of what government is going to do with all that information, since they can’t possibly keep it confidential and use it only for demographic purposes like they say they will:

We know that it doesn’t matter in the slightest if or how we fill out our census forms. It is a rigged system and the democrats own and control that system. The census is going to show what they want it to show – nothing more and nothing less. (Red State comment)

The government can try and FORCE me to follow the Constitution because I have become little more than a slave, but the “contract” has been totally broken since its now a one way street.  (Red State comment)

I feel sorry for whatever enumerator has to visit that one.

I want to give Obama the least amount of information on me and my family that I can. I do NOT trust them, you all should NOT trust them. If we all hold out on the census then they can’t track us and it’ll send a a clear message that can not be ignored!  (Red State comment)

Further and contrary to current and past promises made by the Central Authority, census data supposedly kept under lock & key has been used by numerous agencies within the federal government for nefarious purposes. From the I.R.S seeking to find Income Tax evaders to the Department of Defense searching for males who dodged the draft and even ethnicity in order to facilitate the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, census data has a history of federal abuse.–Rep. Ron Paul  (AJC comment)

Much has been made of the use of census data to intern Japanese Americans, but private data was not released.  It was demographic data, which is publicly available.  The rest of the claims are fabrications.

And then there’s the GPS paranoia:

[T]he US Census Bureau [is] going door-to-door, nationwide, to place YOUR front door “coordinates” into a Global Positioning System (GPS) for marking/mapping purposes; without your consent–and if you are not home–without your knowledge.  Now, why does anyone need GPS Coordinates on every front door in America?  Who is really doing this?  What good reason can they possibly have for such an expensive project?  (HooTrader)

They’re for targeting the missiles, obviously.  This guy says so.

To put it in the plainest terms possible, the only reason you would use a GPS locator system designed to target military weapons, is indeed you intend to use it for military targeting purposes. Otherwise, why would you do it? You wouldn’t.  (Sojouring Through A Strange Land)

Yes, the census has the location of your house.  So does Google–and photos, too.  They’re publicly available.  And, if you live in Amarillo, Texas, so does this militant Christian group, and they’re pegging target locations (strip clubs, new age bookstores, Episcopalian churches, you know, evil stuff like that) that look like they might be in for more than the “prayer war” that the website claims.  I say this because, last time I checked, spiritual warfare didn’t involve helicopters or Humvees.  For that matter, there’s no law preventing a random person with a GPS unit from walking down the street marking the location of each house.  The location of your house is inherently public information.  The difference is that the census keeps it confidential.

Even the seemingly reasonable discussions of the wording of the Constitution and whether it allows for demographic questions or only for a simple enumeration are made in bad faith.  A few of the commenters may be too young to remember the 2000 census, but the rest didn’t complain in 2000 or 1990 or 1980 or any other year, even though the forms were longer and the questions more intrusive.  Nor do they favor disbanding the air force.  At best, they’re hypocritical; at worst, they’re using constitutionality as a cover to legitimize their groundless anger.

An aspect of anti-census sentiment that I found surprising and disturbing was the number of outright lies I ran into.  The rumors are provably untrue, but at least they’re the product of intentional ignorance rather than willful deceit:  While those who believe them make the choice not to research whether the claim is true or not, they do think it’s true.  However, both of the anti-census people who popped up on My Right-Wing Dad claimed to have directly seen or done things that were provably false.  These were lies that they knew to be lies.

The first, a capitalization-challenged anonymous poster, claimed the regular tripe about ACORN and census data being used against US citizens, but also said:

I have been personally asked by a census worker things like employment history and income. it’s none of their business.  (link)

To which someone responded:

There’s no nice way to put this, so I’ll just get right
to the point: you’re a liar.  (link)

And he/she replied:

what evidence do you have that i’m lying about being asked employment history and income? I live in lincoln park chicago on clark and commonwealth. if you don’t believe me call the census bureau and ask them what questions they ask on their home visits. i was asked these questions buy a later aged man in his 50’s on march 30th. he had an official u.s. census bureau badge. i had already sent in my census form 3 weeks prior to this visit. i have also received an additional census form with a letter informing me that I have yet to send in my census form. there’s my tax dollars hard at work.  (link)

I thought of eight reasons this statement is provably false:

  1. The Census doesn’t ask about employment history or income.  He may have received the American Community Survey, which does ask about those things, but it is only distributed to about 1% of the population, and the number of angry anti-census conservatives who claim to have received it is suspiciously high.
  2. Census enumerators will not begin following up on nonresponsives until May 14.
  3. Census enumerators are currently enumerating group quarters, such as mental hospitals and prisons, but if the poster lived in a group quarters, he wouldn’t have received a census form by mail, because census forms are not distributed by mail to group quarters.  He still probably wouldn’t have actually been interviewed by an enumerator, because if the group quarters contains 10 or more people, the enumerator simply drops off the surveys and allows the residents to fill them out.  But all that is irrelevant, because…
  4. Group quarters enumeration didn’t begin until April 2.  On March 30, when the poster claims he/she was visited, enumerators were doing service-based enumeration, visiting homeless shelters and soup kitchens.  Service-based enumeration lasted from March 29-31; these dates were the same throughout the country.
  5. If the poster sent back his/her form, the odds of receiving a visit from an enumerator are very low.  A form with just three questions answered is considered complete (the form enumerators use, anyway; the number may be different for the form that gets mailed in)–it doesn’t even need to have a name on it.
  6. If the poster did receive the American Community Survey instead of the regular census, the odds of receiving an enumerator visit are even lower.  The ACS is just that–a survey.  No one is required to fill out any information he or she is uncomfortable with.
  7. To the best of my knowledge, no letter is sent informing people that they have not yet sent in their census forms; a letter gets sent to everyone reminding them to fill out the form, whether or not they have submitted it yet.

The one bit of the statement that sounds true is that he might have actually received a second census form.  Second forms were mailed to areas that had low response rates in 2000, and Chicago was among those areas.  It wouldn’t have come with any kind of letter saying that he hadn’t responded, though, because the forms were sent to all households in low-response areas, regardless of whether the original form had been returned or not.

The only way the poster could possibly be telling the truth is if he or she was contacted by a census scammer, but although there have been warnings about them, there have been few actual census scams, and I haven’t heard of any conducted door to door.  Of course a scammer would not have an official census badge.

The second poster, who calls himself Paul, posted only this short comment:

I was hired by the US Census Bureau and have been instructed to ask about employment history and income among many other personal questions. Anyone who denies this practice is lying.  (link)

This statement is simply, obviously false.  It’s theoretically possible that he was hired to conduct the ACS, but I don’t think the ACS is ever conducted door-to-door; if it were, it still wouldn’t start until May.  It’s also possible he was hired by a census scammer (scams that target census applicants have been reported).  But these would be vanishingly unlikely scenarios and are easily dispelled by the belligerent confidence of his last sentence.  If he had worked for the ACS, he would know perfectly well that not everyone gets asked those questions.  The only person who can make such a sketchy statement with such equanimity is someone who knows it’s false.

The question we return to is:  Why do they hate the census enough to willfully lie about it?  My theory is that they don’t.  At least, they don’t hate the census in particular.  They hate all government now that Obama is president, and the census makes a convenient target.  I’ll repeat my post from the thread:

I think they just like picking on the census because it’s a part of government that’s essentially helpless and that they’re likely to interact with personally.

So they hate all government. But the people they really hate (Congress, the president, etc) are inaccessible. Taking it out on the police would be a bad idea. Similarly, people like bus drivers are providing services they actually want, so they can’t give much trouble or they’ll risk just getting thrown off the bus.

But what about the skinny college student with the Census bag? He isn’t providing a service and he depends on cooperation, so you can obstruct him all you want. He’s too low-ranking to get you in trouble. Sure, if you threatened him with a weapon he could call the cops, but if you’re rude and uncooperative, he can’t do a thing. Plus, he’s a temporary employee who doesn’t know anything not immediately pertinent to the job he’s doing, so your stupid “gotcha!” questions are likely to stump him. And he’s a government representative, so if you stump him, it’s a sign that the whole government doesn’t know what it’s doing. (link)

These people sit in their (literal or metaphorical) underground bunkers stocked with gold bars and ammunition, watching Glenn Beck on a black-and-white TV and waiting for government stormtroopers to come seize their guns.  Waiting and, well, hoping.  Because they look kind of daft hunkering down like that, only emerging to attend an occasional Tea Party, while the rest of the population is going about their lives, doing whatever it is they happen to be doing, not preparing for the downfall of civilization and apparently not suffering for their lack of preparation.  If only someone from the government would come and prove them right.  At least it would give them someone to tell off.

But wait–there’s a way to get your very own government employee to come right to your door!  And ask questions, just like they were planning to round you up and put you in a concentration camp!  All you have to do is not return a form.  They can’t arrest you or even report you to the police, so you can heap all the verbal abuse on them that you like.  And they’ll come back up to five more times.  It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Much as I believe in electoral fairness, I can’t say I’ll be too heartbroken if these people get redistricted away.

UPDATE:  Whoever got to this page Googling “acorn gps lokation censes,” I don’t know how else to say this, so I’ll just say it: you’re an idiot.


Image from Wikimedia Commons.


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