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Why is The Census Mandatory?

Mon Jan 04 2010
Robert Groves
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“SEC. 6. And be it further enacted, That each and every person more than sixteen years of age, whether heads of families or not, belonging to any Family within any division of a district made or established within the United States, shall be, and hereby is, obliged to render to such assistant of the division, a true account, if required, to the best of his or her knowledge, of all and every person belonging to such family respectively, according to the several descriptions aforesaid, on pain of forfeiting twenty dollars, to be sued for and recovered by such assistant, the one half for his own use, and the other half for the use of the United States.” See the Census Act of 1790.

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The above is the section of the very first Census Act, passed in March of 1790, that specifies a fine of $20 for every person of 16 years or older who does not provide a “true account” of all persons in their family. Ever since that first census, US law has specified such fines for persons who did not participate in the decennial census.

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Why did the Congress of 1790 (which then contained some of the signers of the US Constitution) make the census mandatory? Why has all subsequent legislation renewed this stance?

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The original rationale may be lost in history (please send in comments if you know otherwise) but looking back now it’s consistent with other laws seeking to protect the common good. If persons in the fledgling republic didn’t participate in the census, then their actions indirectly hurt their neighbors, by depriving them of equal representation in the House of Representatives. (The counts of their areas would be lower than actual.) We have other laws like that – speed limits for drivers, selective service registration for young men, and school attendance for children, for example. Thus, the common good value of representatives proportionally distributed by population was thought to outweigh the individual burden of census.

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It’s interesting to note that the census taker (above called the “assistant” to the US marshal taking the census) was provided half of the fine and the rest went to the government. The $20 fine in 1790 would be equivalent to about $500 (using a CPI inflator), but the current fine is only $100. In fact, the Census Bureau has rarely prosecuted failure to respond. While the rationale for the mandatory nature of the census still applies today, our message for the 2010 Census is about the common good benefits of participation.

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At this point, the Federal government has other such mandatory data collections, although almost all of them are surveys of businesses, to ensure that key economic indicators used to track the economy are accurately measured. Here, the rationale is similar, complete measurement of the sample establishments yields accurate national estimates of how the economy is fairing. The burden borne by the sample establishments yields enormous common good value for the entire society.

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America is proudly the land of liberty and freedom, but the founding fathers knew we each also needed to give up a little every once in awhile when important common good outcomes could be achieved.

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Director Robert Groves

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