Citizens, lawmakers, question if census intrudes on privacy

WASHINGTON (AP) - If a Census Bureau worker knocks on James Snead's door this summer asking him to answer questions he left blank on his form, he will offer a polite ''no, thanks.''

It's not that Snead believes people shouldn't cooperate with the once-a-decade count. He just thinks too many private questions are asked on the 53-question long form he - and one in six of the country's 115 million households - received.

It is an issue that has popped up in Snead's hometown of Virginia Beach, Va., as well as on editorial pages, radio talk shows and Capitol Hill: Is the census intruding on people's lives?

''I think they are just going a little overboard on this. I don't tell anybody how much money I make, and it's really nobody's business either,'' said Snead, complaining about a question that asked for his annual income. Snead received the form two weeks ago, filled out just his name and address, and promptly mailed it back with a letter of protest.

''It's not that I distrust the government, but when they turn around and tell me I have to do something ... well, I think I've earned the right not to do something if I choose not to,'' he said.

The envelopes that census forms arrive in are emblazoned with the sentence, ''Your response is required by law.''

The director of the Census Bureau, Kenneth Prewitt, said his agency needs all the questions on its forms answered because the results are crucial to redistributing federal funds for local services.

-How do fire companies know how to get to a fire? They use maps that are drawn from Census Bureau demographic data, Prewitt says.

-Why does the government want to know if you are a veteran? To find out if adequate services for veterans are being provided in your community. If not, maybe a new veterans hospital should be built, Prewitt says.

According to a national survey commissioned in March by the Census Bureau, 72 percent of Americans said they intended to participate, and 75 percent felt the allocation of public funds was a persuasive reason to complete their questionnaire.

''Intrusive, not at all. I don't think they ask probing questions. It affects many things that go on in my community,'' said Raenard Brown of Washington, as he waited in line at a job fair recruiting temporary workers for the Census Bureau.

Others, like Evelyn Roddy do not buy Prewitt's reasoning.

''I don't believe it. It's just a guilt trip to get you to fill your form,'' said Roddy, of Sacramento, Calif. She said she filled out about half of her long form before she ''realized how intrusive it really was,'' then mailed it back - along with a letter to Prewitt complaining that she felt her privacy was being violated.

''I think the census is good, but it's been blown completely out of proportion over what it was intended to do,'' she said.

For instance, Roddy says a question asking if your child is natural or adopted does not make sense because ''it makes no difference if they're adopted or not, they are still your children.'' (The Census Bureau says that question is necessary to keep track of the changing composition of the American family, and adjust related federal programs accordingly.)

Worries over an invasion of privacy by the census are not new. The issue pops up every census, Census Bureau officials say.

On Saturday, Census Day, the Clinton administration stepped up its campaign to encourage participation.

The president, in his weekly radio address, said ''those who suggest that filling out your census form isn't essential are plainly wrong.'' He said he realized Americans are concerned about their privacy ''and that's why I also want to stress that the information you provide is strictly, absolutely confidential,''

Added Prewitt: ''To tell the American people not to complete the form is to tell them to break the law.''

Prewitt told reporters he was worried about poll data showing growing public sensitivity to the privacy issue and was concerned that a low rate of mail-in returns of census forms would leave a ''huge task'' for the agency when it begins knocking on people's doors later this spring.

Some Republicans in Congress say they have received a number of complaints about census forms, and have told callers to leave intrusive questions unanswered.

Last week, GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush said that if he received the long form he was not sure he would fill it out. The Texas governor did not advise people not to complete the form but added, ''If they're worried about the government intruding into their personal lives, they ought to think about it.''

The staff of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said they have suggested that callers worried about privacy at least send in a partially completed form because ''it's better than throwing it in the trash.''

''I urge people to complete the whole form,'' said Rep. Dan Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Government Reform subcommittee on the census. ''But there are some people that are legitimately concerned about this.''

Some, like Libertarian Party national director Steve Dasbach, want the census to be reduced to a postcard that asks for a person's name, address and how many people live in the home.

Back in Virginia Beach, Snead understands the Census Bureau's point of view, but does not sympathize.

''If I were in the statistics business, I would want this information, too,'' he said. But if a census worker knocks on his door for more information, ''I'll just politely say 'I'm sorry.' I'm not going to do it.''


On the Net: Sample Census forms:


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