Census Nonsense

The 2000 US Census is supposed to tell the story of how America has changed over the past 10 years. Legislative districts are accordingly redrawn, and government resources reallocated. Inevitably, the census is a politically charged task.

But the politics of this year's count have almost drowned out what ought to be the main demographic story.

The latest political chapter, which opened just as the Census Bureau was nearing its deadline for getting back as many of its mailed census forms as possible, involves privacy. Is the bureau's long form, sent to 1 in 6 households, too intrusive?

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Beyond the basics of who lives under which roof, the long form asks about mortgages, disabilities, plumbing, and other specifics that some citizens considered too personal. They complained, and some politicians - including Senate majority leader Trent Lott and GOP presidential nominee-apparent George W. Bush - expressed their sympathy. Mr. Lott went so far as to suggest people didn't need to answer questions they objected to. Federal law, however, says the questions must be answered.

This political tempest should blow over immediately. The long-form questions for this census are no more intrusive than in the past. Moreover, each question was cleared by Congress long ago, and each is tied to a government program passed by Congress. The Census Bureau's assurance that the data can't, by law, be transferred to other branches of the government ought to be trusted.

The bureau has spent millions of dollars on advertising to convince citizens and noncitizen residents alike that their privacy will be respected - and that they have a direct interest in being part of the count. Contrary messages from prominent politicians are, at the least, irresponsible.

The census is a constitutionally mandated task. Fair representation depends on census figures. So does efficient use of tax dollars. As the nation grows more complex, the Census Bureau's work is hard enough. It shouldn't have the added job of getting around political nonsense.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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