Last night a local census taker came to my door and asked me a number of personal questions. As anyone reading this likely knows, I care deeply about my privacy, but I was happy to fill out the census. This might seem counter-intuitive, especially given all the apparent controversy over giving personal information to the government, so let me explain.
Initially, I was reluctant to participate as well, but some of the census advertising, and a little independent research, convinced me it was a good idea. Ironically, the advertising convinced me to participate not by explaining how necessary the census is but by highlighting it’s uselessness.
The ads that struck me are from the subway and follow this pattern: How will we know how many ______ to provide is we don’t know how many people there are? Where the blank can be anything from “hospital beds” to “teachers” to “trains”. It is a sensible plea highlighting the relationship between having reliable information about the beneficiaries of government services and the effective administration of those services. Unfortunately it is also obviously outdated.
Do we actually rely on the census figures, taken once every ten years, to plan out how many trains to run or how many hospital beds we need? I certainly hope not. Operating a transit system or hospital in the 21st century involves collecting records more detailed than the census as a daily part of functioning. You simply cannot manage a train schedule or service changes without accurate knowledge of how many people use what trains at what times, nor can you manage hospital scheduling and inventory without knowing how many people needed what medical resources on each day of your management cycle.
The administration of government services does not depend on the information collected by the census, it produces far more accurate and detailed records than the census is set up to collect. If you were worried about the government having information about your private life, don’t worry about the census. Take some of that energy and consider what the government learns about you every time you use a metrocard or pass a toll booth with your ez-pass, or when all our medical records are digitized and centralized. If you believe that not filling out the census will blind the government to the private details of your life, you need to take a better look at the details they already have.
The census is not about spying on you, it is about enfranchising you. The only government service that is apportioned by the census is representation in the national government, and it is the one that determines how much weight all of your concerns and needs for other services have for the next ten years. So I was glad to be counted and encourage anyone else who has avoided the census thus far to stand and be counted as well.
Hopefully, next time around we can dispense with the ritual paperwork and use the information we already have to, more accurately, estimate population, automatically adding millions of the poorest and most vulnerable members of our community to the count. Like most efforts to enfranchise the poor and vulnerable, it is going to be an uphill struggle.