Commentary: Bashing The Census Bashes Business

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Republican nominee-in-waiting George W. Bush say it's a case of Big Government bullying. Libertarian author Wendy McElroy warns of "a declaration of war on American privacy." And talk-radio host Ollie North, leading a chorus of critics on the populist right, goads callers into acts of defiance by insisting "it's not the government's business" to keep tabs on Americans.

The objects of all this angst: the U.S. Census Bureau, a geek-laden agency of statisticians and demographers, and the 53 questions on its so-called long form. Only one in six households are asked to fill out the form, which seeks a detailed profile of a family's income, living habits, and racial composition. But in an atmosphere of welling anxiety about invasion of privacy--particularly in the online world--the right has found fertile ground for a campaign that casts census inquiries in a sinister light.

Partially in response to those attacks, partially due to harried Americans' frustration with the time it takes to complete a detailed census questionnaire, compliance with the long form has faltered. While the long form actually is a bit shorter than the one used 10 years ago, only 48% of its recipients had returned the questionnaires by Apr. 11, compared with 62% overall.

The impact could be considerable. Census officials warn that recalcitrant communities could be undercounted--and shortchanged when it's time to divvy up federal aid.

PREMIER DATABASE. The biggest loser, though, might be business, which relies on government statistics for a wide range of strategic decisions. Companies tap census data--precise down to the zip code--to microtarget sales pitches and determine the best sites for plants and stores. Diluting the nation's best commercial and sociological database is the last thing they want.

Republicans claim to be an ardently pro-business party, but this is one case where populism trumps commercialism. On Apr. 7, the Senate passed a resolution that said that no one should face punishment for failing to comply with the census, as the law requires. Right-wing radio host North urges listeners to pencil in "human" when asked about their race. Representative Tom A. Coburn (R-Okla.) tells constituents to fill out the first six basic questions and omit detailed responses. "Why does the government need to know if you have an outside bathroom?" he asks. He claims that the info that marketers and retailers seek is readily available from private researchers.

Not true, says Maurine Haver, who chairs the statistics committee of the National Association of Business Economists: "There is a lot of extrapolated trend information out there, but without the benchmarking you get with the census data, the private stuff only takes you so far."

TRUE MOTIVE? Adds Everett M. Ehrlich, a private consultant who oversaw the census as Under Secretary of Commerce: "There isn't a hospital or school district that does not rely on [long-form] information. And any time a market-research firm tries to find the best spot for a store or warehouse, they are working off this database. No other source has this detail about the topography of the nation. "But," he laments, "there has been so much demagoguery that there isn't a consensus anymore for essential data-gathering."

Partly because of the GOP's sturm und drang, compliance with the long-form questionnaire could be the lowest since the bureau decided to expand its demographic profiling back in 1940. True, there are legitimate worries about data privacy--particularly concerning the Net and the mining of sensitive financial and health records. If Republicans were more passionate about combatting real intrusions instead of targeting a government agency with a sterling reputation for confidentiality, their rebellion would look more principled. The long and the short of it: The Great Census Uprising seems to be more about political opportunism in an age of paranoia than about protecting eroding privacy rights.