By Colvin, Jill
First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life , No. 202
Most people attribute the origin of the census to the Constitution, but credit should really go to the Bible. As Moses was instructed in the Book of Numbers: "Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, after their families, by the house of their fathers, with the number of their names, every male by their polls."
But, really, counting the children of Israel pales in comparison to the task of tallying each and every man, woman, and child living on American soil each decade, as the Constitution instructs, also in a single (if slightly less eloquent) sentence: "An actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct."
This year, despite pouting an estimated $14 billion into the count--more than twice as much as the last time around, and almost $14 billion more than the framers of the Constitution probably had in mind--the Census Bureau is facing one of its most daunting challenges yet. Given rancorous antigovernment sentiment and threats of boycotts from angry groups on both the fight and the left, the most expensive and labor-intensive census in U.S. history could also turn out to be one of the most troubled ever. With issues of racially charged language on the census form, cost overruns, and the recently resolved debate over sampling hanging over the count, there's a feeling that the 2010 census may be in trouble before it even starts.
It's easy to forget how much is at stake in the decennial count--especially after an idle glance at the short, ten-question form that will land in every resident's mailbox on April 1. But the data the census provides play a pivotal role in nearly every democratic process--a role that underscores the justification offered for the massive bureaucracy by the census' staunch defenders, aside from the constitutional mandate that makes it necessary.
"It's the very heart of our system of fundamental democracy," says Kenneth Prewitt, who served as director of the U.S. Census Bureau from 1998 through 2001. Prewitt is now a political-science professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, and he speaks like a man who has had to defend the whole idea of the census more than once.
Prewitt is right, in one sense. Census data are used to determine the distribution of more than $400 billion in federal funds for schools, hospitals, bridges, tunnels, and other services. By some estimates, local governments stand to lose as much as $30,000 for every resident the census fails to count. While it is obviously impossible to gauge precisely how many people the census skips, New York City alone has forgone as much as $850 million over the past ten years thanks to undercounting, according to an estimate offered by New York's governor, David Paterson.
The census also controls the allocation of seats in the House of Representatives and the redrawing of district lines in every state. Districts are carved city block by city block, and seats can swing on just a handful of votes. In 2000, for instance, Utah was forced to cede the 435th House seat to North Carolina because of just 857 extra heads. This makes an accurate count crucial to the political process, even though that isn't mentioned in the constitutional mandate--nor is the exorbitant cost covered, or even mentioned, in the Constitution. Yet, last time around, the government spent approximately $6.5 billion on the decennial count: It hired nearly one million workers--the nation's largest-ever peacetime mobilization--and flooded the airwaves with a $100-million ad campaign urging participation.
By most measures, the government's efforts in 2000 were a rousing success. Sixty-seven percent of households mailed back their completed forms, reversing a three-decades-long trend of diminishing returns even though shifting demographic trends should have made the population more elusive. …