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
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
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
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.