In the past couple weeks, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) has used her public appearances to fear-monger about the 2010 Census. In a radio interview with the Washington Times, Bachmann said that she and her family would ignore most of the survey’s questions and answer only “how many people are in our home. We won’t be answering any information beyond that, because the Constitution doesn’t require any information beyond that.”
In an interview with Fox News, Bachmann suggested that the Obama administration could use the Census data for nefarious purposes — including the imprisonment of Americans in concentration camps:
BACHMANN: If we look at American history, between 1942 and 1947, the data that was collected by the census bureau was handed over to the FBI and other organizations, at the request of President Roosevelt, and that’s how the Japanese were rounded up and put into the internment camps. I’m not saying that’s what the Administration is planning to do. But I am saying that private, personal information that was given to the census bureau in the 1940s was used against Americans to round them up.
Yesterday, Census Bureau spokesman Steve Buckner spoke to Minnesota Public Radio and said that many of Bachmann’s concerns were misguided. First, filling out the entire Census is required under federal law.
Second, Bachmann may be hurting her own constituents by not filling out all the necessary information. As Buckner said, the Census information — and the more detailed American Community Survey, which “goes to roughly 3 million addresses every year as part of a continual rolling survey” — is used to determine political representation and direct $300 billion in federal funds to state and local governments.
Finally, it’s a federal crime for any Census worker to violate the confidentiality of the Census form, punishable by a federal prison sentence of up to five years, a fine of up to $250,000, or both. The information is not even shared with other government agencies, so there’s no chance that it would be “handed over to the FBI and other organizations,” as Bachmann claimed in her Fox News appearance.
Buckner also said that Census officials have been working with Bachmann’s office to clear up the misinformation:
BUCKNER: Well, we certainly are working with the Congresswoman’s office here in DC, and have already had a briefing with her to explain the rules of the Census and why they’re there, and explain some of the Constitutional law. I mean, the Supreme Court has upheld the powers of the data to be collected. But we’re not asking anything on the 2010 Census that I can see that would be intrusive in terms of the basic information.
As Buckner also pointed out, “For the most part, people put more information on a credit card application than they do on the Census form.”
BUCKNER: It’s very important for everyone to complete their Census and answer the questions because there’s so much at stake. First, it’s political representation for your local levels, but it also directs about $300 billion in federal funds back to state and local governments every year.
MPR: Why, though, do you want to know about income and race and commuting times and those kinds of thing? The Representative was concerned about invasion of privacy with those kinds of questions.
BUCKNER: I believe there’s two separate issues. There’s the 2010 Census, which asks 10 questions and will be completed in 10 minutes. That goes to every single household, and those will be mailed out in March of 2010. I believe the questions that are being referenced are actually a separate survey that conduct called the American Community Survey, which goes to roughly 3 million addresses every year as part of a continual rolling survey.
And what this does — these questions were typically asked during the Census once every 10 years. But Congress and the Census Bureau worked out a plan where we could ask these questions every year and provide much more timely data, rather than data that could be up to 10 years old.
There’s two separate issues. Filling out the Census form in 2010 is critical. That dictates the political representation and the distribution of our $300 billion in federal funds every year.
MPR: That’s the 10 questions. If you get the survey though, can you opt out of that?
BUCKNER: Actually, because they are part of the Census, they are required by law.
MPR: If I don’t fill out a form, will I be faced with a misdemeanor and a fine?
BUCKNER: Under federal law, there is — there are fines that could be administered if you do not answer your Census. If you don’t fill out your Census form, the Census-taker could call you or show up at your door to solicit that information. They will try multiple times to do so. Eventually, if you have some issues with those, we can certainly work with the respondents on which issues they may have issues with, and work out something to that degree.
MPR: Are there safeguards in place to protect people’s privacy? That is a concern.
BUCKNER: Absolutely. We do not share any of the personal information that you provide, to any other government agency, law enforcement agency — that information is strictly confidential, and we all have to take an oath for life, under Title XIII, to protect that data. But most of it is all aggregate statistical data. So your personal information is pretty much off of it. That oath that we take — if we violate it and release any kind of personal information, we can be imprisoned for five years and fined $250,000. So we take it very seriously. Your data is safe with the Census Bureau.
MPR: Finally, are you concerned about Congresswoman Bachmann’s statements, that they may inspire folks to not complete the Census?
BUCKNER: We certainly hope that people understand why we ask for the data, that it’s safe, and their answers are important; it does make a difference.
MPR: It doesn’t help, I suppose then, to have a congressperson talk about these issues in the way that she did.
BUCKNER: Well, we certainly are working with the Congresswoman’s office here in DC, and have already had a briefing with her to explain the rules of the Census and why they’re there, and explain some of the Constitutional law. I mean, the Supreme Court has upheld the powers of the data to be collected. But we’re not asking anything on the 2010 Census that I can see that would be intrusive in terms of the basic information. For the most part, people put more information on a credit card application than they do on the Census form.