The time has come for Americans to sit down and be counted -- sit down, that is, and fill out that census questionnaire Uncle Sam wants returned on April 1. For four out of five households, the task should be simple enough. They will get the short form with only 19 questions about the name, marital status, ethnic background, and so forth of each member. Every fifth household, however, will face a long, rather complicated form with a barrage of personal questions that the US Census Bureau estimates will take about 45 minutes to answer. Uncle Sam ought not to be surprised if some Americans, understandably sensitive about privacy and the government's "need to know," turn the tables on the census takers and ask themm a question or two.
For a start, some respondents already want to know how they can be sure that census data will not fall into the wrong hands. It should be noted that the Census Bureau takes the question of privacy seriously; its 190-year record of restricting access to its files to "sworn census workers" has been very good. And that will likely satisfy most Americans. President Carter has made a special point of reassuring the country's rapidly growing Hispanic community -- the fastest growing segment of the population -- that information on individuals will not be used for taxation, law enforecement, immigration, or other purposes. However, it remains doubtful that many undocumented workers, in particular, will be convinced to step forward and be counted. Antidraft leaders also harbor suspicions and have asked the Carter administration to clarify a recent statement by a top White House official that suggests to them that confidential census information might be used to track down draft resisters in the event registration is reinstated. Such use of personal census data would violate the law under which the census is taken.
Nor should Uncle Sam be surprised if some Americans, who face fines of from $ 100 to $500 for failure to comply, ask, "What business is it of the United States government what kind of plumbing I have?" Or, "Do federal bureaucrats have a legitimate need to know the size of my salary, my monthly mortgage payment -- and whether I have a second mortgage on my home?" Or, "Why must Washington know whether I have physical or mental disabilities, ask about how many babies a woman has given birth to, about how many times a person has been married?"
The CEnsus Bureau's response ought to set to rest most such concerns. The bureau stresses that its questions are arrived at by consensus and are subject to congressional review; they came out of a series of 70 public hearings at which a variety of statisticians and other researchers testified as to which questions they would like to have included in order to help in social planning. Census data are essential in helping communities plan for shopping centers, businesses, new industry, roads, and other public projects. The census may be the only government program that touches every American.
Even with all the money and manpower being put into the complex census operation, demographers warn that an undercount is inevitable. An estimated 5.3 million people -- 2.5 percent of the population -- were missed in 1970. And that raises still another question: Should some kind of artificial adjustment be made in the census figures to take account of those Americans who, for one reason or another, will not be counted?
The question is more than academic. Some $50 billion a year in federal funds , ranging from general revenue sharing to highway assistance, public library construction, and aid to the poor, is allocated on the basis of the census head count. Thus some cities, such as New York, stand to lose millions from an undercount, and it is those persons with the most to gain -- i.e., the poor, minorities, and illegal aliens -- who are the hardest to count and most likely to be missed. Moreover, Congress and many state and local legislative bodies will be reapportioned according to the census findings.
Some demographers argue that to get the closest approximation of "true figures" statistical adjustments should be used in calculating the size of the population. This could be accomplished by using information from other sources -- such as social security, school enrollments, and motor vehicle registration records -- in conjunction with census data. The National Academy of Sciences, for one, supports this approach. Yet there can be little doubt that reliance on anything other than "hard" figures will stir protests and lead to a rash of court challenges. One possible compromise would be to retain the hard figures, and actual count, for the record and for legislative reapportionment, but to use adjusted counts for alloting federal payments to localities and devising other funding formulas.
One sure way to improve the accuracy of the head count is for all Americans to pitch in and cooperate. President Carter calls participation in the census a civic obligation necessary to ensure a fair and equitable distribution of national resources. A country, like a family or business enterprise, must pause now and then to take stock of itself. It needs to know where it is, what shape it and its people are in, in order to help determine where it wants to go next. The census is the constitutional method the United States has for accomplishing this. In the long run, it will be to everyone's benefit to say "count me in" on April 1.