Nix The Long Form

Nix The Long Form

October 01, 1998

On August 24, a federal court invalidated the Census Bureau’s plan, championed by President Clinton, to use statistical sampling in the year 2000 census. Democrats claim sampling is needed to correct the undercounting of minorities. Republicans counter that Clinton would manipulate sampling to reapportion House seats and reallocate federal dollars to boost Democrat Party fortunes. The court ruled against sampling on statutory rather than constitutional grounds, although the Constitution specifically mandates a head count or "enumeration."

Democrats are right that the census no longer produces accurate results, but the solution is to return the Bureau to its original mission, not to heap one unconstitutional practice on top of another.

For several decades the Bureau has sent millions of Americans the so-called "long form" demanding all manner of private information utterly extraneous to issues of apportionment. Government does not do many things well. It is hardly surprising that an agency bent on snooping into personal matters like people’s age, disability, education, gender, grandparents, ethnicity, occupation, race, language spoken at home, marital status, bedrooms, and plumbing facilities, is failing to execute its core function.

Census response rates have been falling for decades, and in a recent "dress rehearsal" for the 2000 census, nearly 50 percent of the test population declined to fill out and mail back census questionnaires. People simply no longer trust the government to keep census information confidential. And why should they? Common sense tells us to be wary of those who pry uninvited into our private business. The Bureau’s demand for information beyond its constitutional mandate is interfering with its ability to fulfill that mandate.

Now that a federal court has invalidated sampling, friends of liberty should go on the offensive and work toward abolishing the long form. Here’s why.

A census is an "enumeration" (Art. I, Sec. 2). Calling the Long Form a "census" is a deceptive abuse of terminology. Ask yourself: Would Congress dare require Americans to submit information about their race, bathrooms, and so on in a survey separate from the census? Surely not, because then it would be obvious the government was exceeding its constitutional authority.

Some Long Form defenders take refuge in the interstate commerce and general welfare clauses. But such expansive rationales can be used to justify any degree of government snooping. As William F. Rickenbacker observed, if we do not draw the line where the Framers drew it, what’s to prevent the government from requiring us to submit data on our cash transactions, religious beliefs, party affiliation, or sexual practices?

No serious person advocates abolishing the Long Form overnight – many federal programs allocate billions of dollars based on Long Form data. But between now and the 2010 census, policy makers should reexamine the constitutional propriety of those programs and make plans to replace the Long Form with non-coercive data collection and greater reliance on private information services.

If nothing else, a national debate on the Long Form would be educational, reminding Americans how far our government system has strayed from its original constitutional design.