In the age of identity theft, privacy concerns and increasing public distrust of big government, the 2010 census has an image problem.
Never mind the U.S. Census Bureau's cool new Nascar sponsorship, or its friendly videos, multiple public service announcements, hot lines in six languages, traveling "Portrait of America" road tour, "director's blog," comic books and celebrity endorsements. Many Americans are still wary about that 10-question form waiting on the dining room table.
A Zogby International survey found this week, for instance, that half the respondents were not "confident" that their personal data they provide on the census would be kept confidential. Almost as many - 47 percent - were not convinced that public funds eventually stemming from the national population tally would ever benefit their community.
The poll revealed that most Americans - 87 percent - will dutifully send back their census form, though there was a partisan divide: 95 percent of Democrats will comply, compared with 80 percent of Republicans. But 14 percent also refuse to participate.
"The one-in-seven who are unsure or will not complete the census is very troubling," pollster John Zogby said, noting that privacy worries dominated the list of this group's concerns.
Likewise, a Pew Research Center poll this week revealed that 29 percent of the respondents were not confident their privacy would be protected by the Census Bureau; the figure rose to about a third among Republicans. A Rasmussen Reports survey uncovered real public skepticism: Only 25 percent of Americans overall think the final census count will accurately reflect the nation. The number rose to 55 percent among Republicans.
Along with delivering an earnest video message about civic obligation and the historic implications of the census from James Madison's colonial homestead Montpelier, Census Director Robert Groves tried to reassure the skittish.
"The Justice Department responded to some concerns about the confidentiality of census data by expressing their view that no provision of the Patriot Act overrides the confidentiality law that protects census data," Mr. Groves said this week in Virginia. "This legal position agrees with the long-held views of the Census Bureau and the Commerce Department."
The penalty for unlawful disclosure of the information is $250,000 and up to five years in prison, Mr. Groves advised. The census also describes the actual form as "one of the shortest census questionnaires in history."
While there has been some public outcry about the $14.7 billion cost of the census, some question the questions.
"The U.S. Constitution empowers Congress to provide for a census in order to apportion representatives correctly. The Constitution does not empower Congress to use a census for any other purpose. There is no need for Congress to collect additional information such as names, races, ages, sexes or home-ownership status," countered Libertarian Party Chairman William Redpath.
"Unfortunately, the federal government wants to use the additional information to fine-tune its control over the lives and money of the American people," he added.
Special-interest groups also are at work. The District-based National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders has asked illegal immigrants and their supporters to boycott the census as a means to prompt immigrant legislation. The Hispanic National Bar Association, on the other hand, is urging "unity collaboration" on the census within the Hispanic community.
Politicians, community groups and interest groups, meanwhile, are already tabulating how many funds - and congressional seats - their respective regions could stand to lose if the citizens don't participate.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat, was one of many lawmakers who did the math this week. He figured that his state would lose $12,000 for every person who didn't return their census form.
"Critical funds that promote economic development, keep our communities safe, and help those in need are at stake," Mr. Brown said. "The census determines the future of our state."
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