We live in an age of contradictions. Between private companies, government security agencies and Internet scam artists, our privacy has never been more endangered. Millions of Americans put the most intimate details of their lives on Facebook pages for the world to see. But let the federal government ask a handful of simple questions, and people get up in arms.
We live in an age of contradictions. Between private companies, government security agencies and Internet scam artists, our privacy has never been more endangered. Yet millions of Americans put the most intimate details of their lives on Facebook pages for the world to see. They post family pictures online and blog about what they had for dinner. Life is a reality show, and keeping secrets is so 20th century.
But let the federal government ask a handful of simple questions, and people get up in arms.
Of course, some people always get up in arms about the Census. They don't like the government asking questions, especially when it comes to race.
As Census forms arrived in mailboxes last week, the Libertarian Party denounced the exercise as "unconstitutional, unnecessary and too expensive." They got the last part right: This year's Census is expected to cost taxpayers $14 billion to take what its marketing campaign calls "a snapshot of America."
The Libertarians argue that the Constitution simply calls for an "enumeration" of persons -- "persons," not citizens or legal residents, anti-illegal immigration advocates should note -- so a simple headcount should suffice. But even in 1790, with the Constitution's ink barely dry, Census workers wanted to know names, ages and whether you were free or enslaved, in part because Congress wanted a handle on how many free men might be available for military service.
There's also nothing new in complaints about the Census' racial questions. A century ago, the Census forms listed Jews and Italians as non-white races. A decade ago, people complained that it was too hard for people of mixed races to figure out which box to check.
That's been a headache, especially in communities with large Brazilian populations. Question 8 asks if you are "Hispanic, Latino or of Spanish origin," but Brazilians speak Portuguese, not Spanish. They don't necessarily consider themselves Latino. Some Brazilians have darker skin than others, but wouldn't necessarily check the box labeled "Black, African-American or Negro" in question 9.
Brazilian community leaders working on the "Complete Count Committee" in Framingham, Mass. -- a group set up by the Census in places where a full enumeration is considered hard to get -- tell Brazilians to check the box marked "other" in questions 8 and 9 and write in "Brazilian." But official Census workers aren't allowed to offer that piece of advice, and while the form itself is available in six languages, Portuguese isn't one of them.
The most boneheaded Census protest of the year came from a few fringe activists and radio hosts in the immigrant community, who have urged other immigrants to boycott the Census to show their impatience with Congress' failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
How's this for logic: If the politicians continue to ignore us, we'll punish them by hiding deeper in the shadows. If they think we're not here, maybe they'll pay more attention to our needs.
Immigrant leaders in Framingham say they think the boycott idea isn't catching on. They're doing what they can to get a complete count because there's more riding on the Census than taking a nice snapshot.
The stakes include $400 billion in federal money, in 18 or more programs that allocate funds based on Census numbers. The money goes to schools, highway projects, law enforcement, job training and health care. The Brookings Foundation estimates there's $1,700 riding on each person counted.
That's why mayors and selectmen and state reps are pulling out the stops to count every head. If you don't mail back your form, someone will come knocking on your door. Census workers and volunteers will hit nursing homes and college dorms. They will target illegal apartments just to count people -- not report them to authorities, they promise -- and count homeless people wherever they bed down for the night.
What's also at stake is representation. Census figures are used to reapportion districts for members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the state Legislature. With the national population shifting south and west, Massachusetts stands to lose a Congress member if the state's population drops, and none of the pols want that.
State legislators like Rep. Pam Richardson, D-Framingham, who has been meeting for months with the Complete Count Committee, want to maximize the federal money coming into their districts as well as avoid falling on the wrong side of a population shift when the Legislature draws new district lines.
That's why Framingham officials will make sure every head is counted at 100 State Street. That's Framingham State College, where more than 1,400 students live. Most of the college's residential students come from other towns, and maybe their parents and the officials in their hometowns would prefer they were counted there.
That's their tough luck. The Census says wherever you are hanging your hat on April 1, 2010, is where you officially live and where your theoretical $1,700 in federal program money goes.
This provision has not escaped Massachusetts politicians. Secretary of State William Galvin, who heads up the state's Census effort, calls the state's 350,000 or so college students "our cash crop."
Framingham officials are also pleased to have the heads counted at 99 Loring Drive. That's the state women's prison, where 649 prisoners qualify as involuntary Framingham residents.
Or consider 965 Elm St., the involuntary residence of 1,310 Concordians. The demographics of the prisoners at MCI Concord are quite different from those of their neighbors in one of the nation's wealthiest communities. But the blind rules of federal funding formulas give Concord credit for the guys behind the big walls over on Route 2.
This has become an issue in New York, where thousands of prisoners from the neediest urban neighborhoods pump up the Census numbers for a handful of Upstate hamlets. The Rev. Al Sharpton has helped lead protests, demanding the education and health grants apportioned by Census numbers go to the cities where the prisoners' families live, not the schools and hospitals used by the families of the prison guards.
You can argue that the presence of a prison or college in a given community carries costs that should be compensated by the state or federal government, but that's a separate discussion. When it comes to the Census and all the money that hangs on that count, counting the students and prisoners as permanent residents adds a distortion to the nation's snapshot.
It also distorts, if only slightly, the process of apportioning legislative power. Even if Framingham and Concord deserve extra compensation for housing prisons, it doesn't mean they deserve extra clout in the state Legislature.
None of these quibbles constitute sufficient reason to fail to answer the simple 10 questions on the Census form. Yet a Pew Foundation survey found that 12 percent of respondents don't know if they'll fill out their Census form, with half of those saying it was unlikely they'll participate. Over the next few months, Uncle Sam is going to spend a lot of money trying to get them to change their minds.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.