April 28, 2000

April 28, 2000 | Commentary on

Playing the Numbers

During the hubbub over the U.S. Census, I kept waiting for someone to point out the worst part. It wasn't that the census is too intrusive, although that was a legitimate concern. It wasn't even the privacy scares whipped up by anti-census groups.

No, the worst part was the way the government marketed the census to the American people, as though we were panhandlers greedy for a federal handout.

You've probably seen the Census Bureau's pitch on television. In one commercial, a waitress is having a hard time at work because she has to bring her toddler to the restaurant. The child gets fussy and starts crying. Diners sigh in disgust. The manager gets mad. The waitress might even get fired. Then a voice explains that government daycare funding is determined through the census. Message: Fill out your form and you'll not only help this poor woman, but you'll be able to eat in peace.

Another spot shows a house on fire. Firefighters try to douse the blaze, but their equipment keeps falling apart. A voice explains that funding for public services such as fire stations is determined by the census. Message: Fill out your form or risk watching your home burn to the ground.

The census has been around for 210 years for one purpose-to determine congressional representation. But that's not good enough for the Census Bureau. In a letter sent to all Americans, Census Director Kenneth Prewitt said there's a second reason to fill out the census that "may be more important to you and your community. The amount of government money your neighborhood receives depends on your answers."

How crass. The census has become a lottery states play once a decade to win federal dollars-an estimated $182 billion this time around. As the Census Bureau's web site bluntly states: "Participating in the census is in the individual's own self interest. For example, census information helps decision makers understand which neighborhoods need new schools and which ones need greater services for the elderly."

The "decision makers" in question, of course, are Washington bureaucrats who use the census to determine how much federal money communities from Wagon Mound, N.M., to New York City get for schools, roads and the like. And federal agencies have billions to shower on those communities lucky enough to provide a healthy head count.

Local officials know it. According to Bud Gilbert, a former state senator who organized a lottery in Tennessee for census participants, "Millions of dollars are at stake for our community." Valdosta, Ga., offered a $5 bill to every resident who completed the census. "What we are looking at is an investment to help the city achieve a very important status that will prevent us from losing millions of dollars," City Manager Larry Hanson explained.

Others were willing to stretch the definition of "resident." Ames, Iowa, officials held a $7,000 drawing called "Claim Ames in the 2000 Census" to entice students at Iowa State University to file as city residents, regardless of where they actually live. Thousands responded, but according to one city official, "We had students who said, 'We think you are bribing us.'"

They're right. But with the Census Bureau declaring success-65 percent of all forms have been returned, matching 1990's totals-we're sure to hear about still more prizes, lotteries and cash giveaways in the future. Sure, appeals to self-interest work, but is it worth it if we turn a basic civic duty into a gigantic game of "Lotto"?

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
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