Census Confidentiality
Gilbert F. Casellas
Korea Times
February 24, 2000

In George Orwell's classic "1984," Government is the omnipresent force that intrudes into the private lives of citizens and is portrayed as the enemy of the people. While Orwell was descricmbp.govbing the future in this fiction novel, his theme resonates with many people today - - particularly Korean Americans and other Asian Americans.

A prime example of suspicion toward Government is the census - - the initiative required under the U.S. Constitution that seeks to count all people living in the United States every ten years. While the census seeks to provide accurate data that will help federal, state and local officials conduct sound public policy through the next decade, many Americans mistakenly believe that it is merely another way for the Government to collect personal information to be used against them.

The U.S. Census Bureau is keenly aware that too many individuals will instinctively retreat when they receive in March a census survey asking personal questions about age, race, and housing, among other things. A study commissioned by the Census Monitoring Board found that many fear the Bureau shares personal data with other agencies such as the INS, IRS and FBI. A smaller number of people indicated this is reason enough not to participate in the census. 55 percent of Asian Americans worry government does not keep information confidential. Almost half of the Asian Americans polled said government has enough information on them.

It?s time to set the record straight.

First, census data is kept confidential. U.S. law requires personal data collected for the decennial census stay private for 72 years. Any breach of the statute by a Bureau employee could lead to imprisonment of up to five years and stiff fines.

Second, the Bureau honors the law. In the 1950s, the War Department sought from the Bureau personal information on certain Japanese Americans for purposes of internment. It refused to turn over the information to the Department and the decision was ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court. Harry Truman once requested from the Bureau personal information about a few people who became temporary neighbors during a White House renovation. The Bureau respectfully informed him that law would not permit it.

Asian Americans, indeed all Americans, need to shift their focus from negative concerns about confidentiality and begin to recognize the positive benefits of participating in this once-a-decade initiative. In effect, the census tells us who we are as a people and allows our democracy to function in a way that is fair and equitable to all people. The data is utilized by government officials to determine important policy priorities. It determines the fair allocation of federal dollars each year and impact programs ranging from Medicaid to Foster Care. In addition, the data helps officials and economic development planners decide where to build new hospitals and schools, and where new affordable housing units should be located. Moreover, it determines the apportionment of congressional seats for states. The population groups that are missed in the census don?t receive the funding or the political representation they deserve.

In the 1990 Census, 8.4 million people were missed and approximately four million people were counted more than once, representing a net national undercount of 1.6 percent. A disproportionate number of those missed in 1990 were the poor, people of color and children. The Asian American undercount registered 2.3 percent, reflecting concerns over confidentiality. The 1990 result for Asian Americans, far worse than the national undercount of 1.6 percent, must not be repeated in the 2000 Census - - the cost is too high at too many levels.

Census questionnaires will be distributed via mail this March; every household in the United States and its territories will be asked to complete the questionnaire and return it to the Bureau by April 1. If the questionnaire - - to be made available in English and five other languages - - is not returned by mail, the Bureau will come knocking on doors to carry out its constitutional mandate.

With the stakes so high, Asian Americans and all Americans owe it to themselves to rally as a community. Spread the word at church, at work, school and in your neighborhood that participating in the upcoming census is crucial. Let people know that individuals should have every confidence that personal data will remain secure; the law requires it, and history attests to it. More positively, let them know the flow of federal dollars is conditioned on official census data as is their political representation.

Through your involvement, an increasing number of Asian Americans and others will see the census for what it truly is - - friend not enemy.


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U.S. Census Monitoring Board
Presidential Members
4700 Silver Hill Road
Suite 1250 – 3
Suitland, MD 20746
Phone: (301) 457-9900
Fax: (301) 457-9901