Think that census form is nosy? Try ancient Rome

Counting heads has been an intrusive process since Jesus' time.

Sure, telling the government if you have "complete" plumbing facilities in your house may seem intrusive. Or revealing if anyone in your family has difficulty dressing, bathing, and getting around.

But imagine a census worker at your door asking you to lift up your shirt to reveal the number of scars on your body, or to expose your nose to precise measurement.

Robed enumerators in ancient Rome posed exactly those questions, along with "how many live in this home," more than 2,000 years ago.

As the deadline for Americans to hand in their Census form arrives, criticism is echoing from Congress to Kalamazoo about the intrusiveness of some of the queries. Some of this may be because a few of the questions do seem intrusive. Some of it may be because Americans have always harbored a penchant for privacy and a suspicion of government.

But, in fact, public uneasiness with telling the government personal, mundane, perhaps even asinine details about oneself and one's household has a history that predates Jesus.

And while it may be little solace to those who still don't see the rationale for revealing the length of their daily commute, census counters over the centuries have learned a few things about what questions to ask and how to ask them.

In Los Angeles, some enumerators have been trained how to ask questions in gang territory and get out in one piece.

And just remember, no one today is being asked to take the tape measure to his or her proboscis.

"The great census in Palestine that is referred to in Luke and associated with the birth of Jesus created riots," explains Bruce Frier, a professor of classics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "People were suspicious of the Roman government collecting all the information, just like the information gathering today."

But every 10 years, that privacy-hoarding streak runs up against a federal effort reminiscent of Roman legions. Starting next week, half a million temporary census workers will go door to door, counting Americans who wouldn't fill out their forms.

Unlike the ancient effort, which Mr. Frier sees as a largely arbitrary exercise of power, proponents say the questions in America's once-per-decade count relate directly to needed decisions: everything from electoral districting to where to build roads and how to spend public money.

Still, if the US Census Bureau now wields computers and a Madison Avenue public-relations campaign, the Romans were persistent in their own ways.

Frier has studied more than 300 surviving census documents recorded on papyrus parchment, which record statistical data on families in the Nile delta and other areas of North Africa and the Middle East.

The documents list family names and number of occupants. For multihome owners, they list which homes were occupied and which were vacant. No mention of plumbing.

"They had a very complex system of doing this. Every household had to file one," explains Traianos Gago, professor of Greek Papyrology also at the University of Michigan.

The census then occurred every 14 years to record the new batch of tax-paying males. Able-bodied men aged 14 to 62 paid taxes.

"It remains a mystery what other function the census played," Mr. Gagos says.

In America, since the first Constitution-mandated census in 1790, the process has evolved in scope and method to match the swelling population. Lawmakers are now debating whether the $4 billion task is too expensive, too intrusive.

The decennial controversy this time around has produced fodder for late-night comedians and popular humor.

"The trick for government is to overcome the aggravation and suspicion factor and appeal to our self interests," says Bob Garfield, an ad critic at Advertising Age magazine, pointing to the agency's $173 million ad campaign.

That campaign - emphasizing that areas where more people return their forms may benefit from more public spending - is credited in part for a higher-than-expected return rate for the "short form," which asks the age, race, and gender of home occupants.

But, oh, that long form!

With its 53 questions, it has proven problematic again. "The long form response rate is lagging behind the short form by more than double the rate experienced in 1990," said Census Director Kenneth Prewitt just before today's extended mail-in deadline.

Indeed, some areas have experienced abysmally low rates. In Puerto Rico, its 44 percent for long or short forms compares with a roughly 65 percent national average.

In 1970, the year mail-in forms began, the return rate was 83 percent.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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