Friday, April 2, 2010

The Census, Partiotism & Selfishness

I remember filling out the 1980 Census.
I begged my dad to fill it out. I was excited to participate in this civic duty.
I guess I was a data nerd all the way back in Junior High.

As a nine year old on Independence Day in 1976, I was bursting with pride to the point of tears while riding my bike tricked out with blue and red streamers in our (no longer) small New Hampshire town.
The President made a compelling case for conserving energy, and I was eager to do my part for the country, shutting off un-needed lights, helping dad weatherize the house.

In short, I was fervently proud to be an American, and when the country asked for my help, I was only too eager to give to the common good.

Then the 1980's heralded in an age of selfish, individualist, suspicious governance that no longer asked for my help. Patriotism was recast as being against communists rather than for each other in this great nation.

I didn't get to fill out the 1990 Census, because I was off at college.

But when the 2000 Census came across my threshold in March, I was again eager to fill it out as a head of household for the first time. It was just the right thing to do.

The 2010 Census finds me under someone else's roof again, but we worked to together to make sure everyone was fairly represented.

Census and Distrust

It seems like this year, the Census has been politicized to a much greater degree than in the past. Rather than a simple civic duty, not filling out the Census has become a way to express distrust of government.
Certainly there are valid reasons to be distrustful of government, such as failing to protect the civil rights of minority populations, failing to ensure the provision of a basic level of social services to all our citizens, failing to protect us from pollution in our air, water, soil, and food, or failing to explore all reasonable options before engaging military solutions to political problems.

But the selfish rejection of government because you don't feel like paying taxes or whatever baffles me. It's so toxic to true Patriotism, which to me is all about pulling together in times of hardship, and helping each other out in times of plenty.

The Bus Ad
There's a bus ad circling the streets of San Francisco (and other metro areas as well) that says: "If we don't know how many PEOPLE we have, how do we know how many BUSES we need?"
This struck me as odd the first time I saw it. Anyone in San Francisco knows that the right answer to "How many buses do we need?" is "More". But bus lines are getting cut back instead while fares are jumping through the roof. There's no connection.

My gripe about the bus ad is not just that it offers a false promise (that buses will be provided in direct proportion to need), but more importantly, that it suggests that the best reason to fill out the Census is for selfish reasons - to make sure that you and your community get their share of buses, schools, hospitals, etc.

But isn't the best reason to fill out the census form that it's our civic duty? It's one of the most direct connections we as citizens have to our venerable Constitution. And the framers thought it so important that it's in the second section.
Article 1, Section 2:
The 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.

What's wrong with appealing to our sense of civic pride, of patriotism, of doing our part?