Sunday, April 8, 2018

Hubbub about 2020 Census question a lot of hot air

There was a lot of hubbub this week about the 2020 Census, because when it comes to American fads, hubbub is the new kale. 

The president suggested asking a person's citizenship status on the Census form. That is certainly a better question than this actual one from the 1990 Census: "Is your dwelling connected to the public sewer?" Not to mention the obvious followup question, "Would you like to donate $1.00 to a political party?"

The citizenship question has, in fact, been part of the Census for decades; it just wasn't in 2010. So the hubbub feels manufactured. Really, adding this question back to the form is just one of about, oh, 178,000 ways the president is trying to roll back Obama's legacy. 

Here's an idea. Let's convince him that Daylight Saving Time was Obama's idea. Please get behind me on this. 

I worked for the Census in 1990, so I am an insider. I recall signing an agreement, however, in which I had to swear never to reveal what I experienced. I am still not sure why, although I suspect it had something to do with the spirit conjuring. (The sewer question above is public knowledge, though.) And let me take this moment to say that the entire Census process was smooth and the federal government was an ideal employer. 

Census questions reveal a lot about their times. In 1810, one question asked if the person was deaf, blind or "idiotic." In 1910, we had the cheery "Of the children a person has mothered, how many are still alive?" 

In 2000, if you randomly received the “long form,” you had to answer a whopping 53 questions, but in 2010 this was pared down to only 10, one of which, strangely enough, was simply “LeBron or Kobe?”

Sure, a lot of people won't return the questionnaire if it means revealing they aren’t citizens. That was true in 1970, and it’s true now. The omission of this question in 2010 did not, I understand, result in a noticeably higher return rate. 

I know from my experience, it is hard to even get citizens to respond. Maybe if they offered to mail respondents a free gun or a Ruth Bader Ginsburg pillow, their choice. 

We feel hinky about giving personal information to the government yet we feel no qualms about posting a picture of ourselves on Facebook in a bunny costume chugging carrot vodka. Maybe they should add one more Census question: Dude, what were you thinking?

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