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Anti-Census Sound and Fury Produced Little

• April 27, 2010 • 2:17 PM

Despite the heavy breathing about the constitutionally mandated U.S. Census this year, participation rates are pretty high.

As the government gets set next week to deploy door-to-door census-takers, fully 72 percent of households have sent back their forms this year sans personal prodding.

The figure matches the 2000 rate and well surpasses the Census Bureau’s worst-case-scenario budgeting estimate of 67 percent. Most compelling, the high response and the live region-by-region tracking available this year through Google maps, debunks two of the juicier theories about the 2010 headcount — that a broad anti-government mood would discourage people from participating and, more specifically, that conservatives (or red states) would shun the survey disproportionately.

Neither plotline played out, a big win for the funding of public schools and highways over the dubious baiting of pundits and politicians.

“I think the advertising campaign helped,” said Kenneth Prewitt, a past director of the Census Bureau and a professor of public affairs at Columbia. “You can’t completely advertise your way out of anger and out of indifference. But in the absence of the ad campaign, we certainly would not have had this level of response.

“But somehow something else is going on, and it’s a more interesting, complex story: Why did the American public ignore these calls to boycott, ignore these rants?”

Influentials from Glenn Beck to Michele Bachmann cast this year’s constitutionally mandated census as a newly intrusive government reach into private homes and lives. They warned of deeply personal and unconstitutional questions (the 10-question census this year was, in fact, among the shortest ever). The Census in Schools initiative, widely popular when it was launched in 2000, was denounced this year as indoctrination of children.

The public must have seen all this logic, Prewitt reasons, for what it was: silliness.

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“The bigger story, and it’s a healthy story,” he said, “is that at least on certain kinds of responsibilities, the public at some level — and it’s still only at 70 percent, not in the 80s or 90s — but at some level, the public recognizes [it] as an act of patriotism and loyalty; it knows it’s supposed to do certain things to make society run better.”

So maybe you don’t like Barack Obama, or think Congress is doing a terrible job, or believe health care reform is unconstitutional. None of that really has anything to do with the message at the core of this year’s census campaign: If the government can’t measure your community, it won’t know how many trains, hospitals, schools or roads you need.

“A lot of research shows that people really want to do something that will help their community, and responding to the census definitely helps your community,” said John Thompson, president of the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center (and another former Census official). “If you can get that message across, it’s very powerful.”

That was precisely the message of the $133 million campaign this year, in the census’ second-ever foray into paid advertising.

As evidence of the census’ value, A New York Times/ABC poll this month found that even the most suspicious of government, Tea Party supporters, were just as likely to return their forms as anyone else, with 97 percent saying they already had or intended to do so. Eighty-seven percent of Americans in an earlier Pew poll said they definitely or probably would respond, and 80 percent told CNN they think the census is useful and “not an invasion of their privacy.”

Live tracking results do show lower responses in the Southwest than the Upper Midwest (Wisconsin takes the honor of the nation’s highest response rate, at 80 percent). But any red-state theories fall flat: Texas has eked out above New York so far, and perennially conservative Kentucky, Tennessee and South Carolina have all exceeded their 2000 response rates by at least five percentage points.

Less responsive states like Arizona, New Mexico and Louisiana are likely to have lower rates not because of Glenn Beck fans, but illegal immigrants, a group the census regularly struggles to count.

The immigration challenge aside, the lesson this year seems to be an overwhelmingly encouraging one: Cable pundits may be driving partisanship in America, but at least on this one issue, we can think for ourselves (and our schools and subways and police stations).

“You have Congressman Bachmann saying, ‘Why should I give the government my address and my age?’” Prewitt said. “Well, for starters, she can’t be a member of Congress unless she gives the federal government her age and address.

“It was so patently silly, maybe the American public sort of recognized this.”

Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

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