After several anxious days of waiting—watching out my office window for the faithful U. S. Postal truck—I finally received mine. Have you gotten yours? I sure hope so, because there isn’t much time—We The People—134 million households of us—have a deadline.
In fact, there is a very special day coming up. It’s called Census Day 2010. And, are you ready for this—it’s scheduled for April 1ST. That’s right, the moment we honor fools and play tricks on everybody is the official day to recognize, if not return, our Census forms. Census Day started out in 1790 as the first Monday in August. It was moved to June in 1830, then to April 15 in 1910, and by 1940 to the first day of April.
Obviously, most Americans are well aware of this decennial process of counting everyone. After all, we’ve been seeing all those very cool commercials. I saw one the other day, having made the mistake of watching a show that hadn’t been dvr’d, that mentioned how important it was to fill out the form and send it back. The spokesperson warned: “You won’t get your fair share, if you don’t send it back.”
Fair share? Fair share of what?
If I read my history correctly—and I do—the whole idea of a census from the beginning had to do with having our fair say. When the U.S. Constitution was ratified and became the ever-since law of the land, it specified in Article 1, Section 2, that a census, or “enumeration” should be scheduled within three years of the first meeting of the Congress, and then every ten years, thereafter. The first such census was conducted in 1790 and it has been repeated every decade since.
Even in its early days the idea of a national head count was not without controversy. There was something at least a little disconcerting about individuals ceding personal information to government, no matter how small or general that data might have been. The purpose of all of this had purely to do with the apportionment of representation in Congress, the various districts being determined by population.
That remains one purpose of the every-decade-nose-count in America, and it is a vitally important one. If an area has lost population, districts are redrawn and Congressional representation adjusted accordingly—and vice versa for growing areas. So the political stakes are real—and high.
But as government has grown over the course of our nation’s history, both in its size and scope, the Census has morphed into the basis for many other things having to do with government programs and federal dollars. And this is where that mention of “fair share” comes in. There are these days various federal initiatives funding programs in states and communities for education, infrastructure, and even health care. Of course, all the money comes from us in the first place. Around the time our nation was in the middle of its fourth census, Alexis De Tocqueville suggested, “The American Republic will endure, until politicians realize they can bribe the people with their own money.” Indeed.
Beyond this, Census data is used by the government in a variety of ways for “policy purposes”—economic and otherwise. This brings to mind another Census 2010 campaign mantra—in fact, it’s the official slogan this time around: “We can’t move forward until you mail it back?”
Forward to where? Forward to what?
I will fill mine out and send it in. I will answer every question truthfully and I won’t waste my time being clever or creative in my responses. But this doesn’t mean that I don’t wonder what all the fuss is about this year. After all, we get a package from the federal government around the first of January each year reminding us of incoming taxes. I never saw a funny commercial about that, largely because most Americans can figure out that this means we have to send something back or be in trouble.
Why then the song and dance about the Census?
Is it because those in charge these days have cool ideas (cool to them) about what they can make of America with new demographic tea leaves to examine? I don’t think one has to be a conspiracy theorist to wonder. Last year, a few eyebrows were raised when the administration announced that it wanted to, in effect, take the Census away from the to-do-list of the Commerce Department, signaling that they wanted command-central for the big count to be in the West Wing. Then there was the issue with ACORN being contracted to work on the big detail-dig. We all know how good they are with numbers, muscle, and the truth.
Questions were raised last year—reasonable ones, in my opinion—about the fact that nowhere on the Census form does it ask about the citizenship of residents. This suggests the possibility that some areas—with large blocs of non-U.S. citizens (legal or otherwise) would have their population and therefore congressional representation impacted by some who have do not have the full rights of American citizenship.
Personally, I am not concerned about getting my fair share based on the Census this year. I am solely concerned with continuing to have my fair say and that the voices heard in our country are those described by “We the People”—in other words, actual citizens.
Furthermore, I’d just as soon keep more of my fair share in the first place, thank you. And “move forward” by myself.