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Be Skeptical about the Census

January 11, 2020 in Economics

By Matthew Feeney

Matthew Feeney

This year the Census Bureau will begin conducting the constitutionally required census, which takes place every 10 years. Many readers will dutifully fill out the forms, informing the bureau about their household and providing researchers with data. In May, the bureau will begin visiting those who haven’t responded to the census.

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But why wouldn’t someone want to contribute to social science and an accurate head count? The history of the census provides ample evidence to justify such reluctance.

The census sounds harmless enough. In a representative democracy like the United States where seats in at least part of the legislature are determined by population, it’s important to know how many people live in the country and where they live. The framers of the Constitution codified the decennial census as the mechanism for determining the number of seats each state occupies in the House of Representatives. Yet the information included in the census has been used to violate civil liberties, and it would be a mistake to assume similar abuses won’t occur again.

Governments often overreact in the wake of a crisis, and a crucial feature of such overreactions is the collection and analysis of information. During the first Red Scare, a 24-year-old J. Edgar Hoover was put in charge of the so-called “Anti Radical Division” formed by the Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer after a string of anarchist bombings. Hoover, who previously worked at the Library of Congress, used his librarian skills in his hunt for aliens to deport. His team assembled hundreds of thousands of index cards associated with not only individuals but publications and organizations. These notecards aided Department of Justice officials, who conducted the so-called Palmer Raids in late 1919 and early 1920. The raids resulted in thousands of people being arrested without warrants, hundreds of whom were deported.

Such zeal for data collection was not isolated to the first Red Scare. Other crises have resulted in increased information gathering. And one of the best sources of information available to the government is the census.

After the Japanese navy’s air service bombed the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor in December 1941, military officials reached for the census to facilitate one of the most shameful civil liberty abuses in American history: the internment of Japanese-Americans. A few months after the attack, President …read more

Source: OP-EDS