Elegy for a Census Form
A few facts about my neighborhood in Washington: over one-fifth of those of us living around Capitol Hill possess some sort of graduate degree (not including me, I feel I should mention). About 54% of us live in non-family households — Washington is home to a burgeoning population of young professionals (a subset that does include me). A little bit less than one-tenth of Washingtonians in my area are foreign-born, which almost seems low for a city that hosts dozens of embassies, each with a small army of staff. For those of us paying rent checks every month, approximately 30% pay under $750 — a steal in one of the country’s most expensive housing markets. The average full-time, year-round male worker in my neck of the woods pulled home, on average, $57,856 (many of those with graduate degrees are lawyers).
I could, if I wanted to, go on. I could tell you what proportion of my neighbors are married, how many live in 1-bedroom apartments, how many have ancestry from the non-Basque parts of France. It’s just a matter of quickly perusing the American Community Survey, a statistical survey sent out with the decennial Census that enables a more accurate portrayal of towns and cities across the country. It’s also become, bizarrely, a political tinderbox, a focal point for small government rage — and, possibly, a relic of the past. On Thursday, the House of Representatives voted 232-190 in favor of eliminating the ACS, citing its intrusiveness and unconstitutionality (the ACS, as proponents quickly pointed out, dates back to 1790, when the Census was administered by Thomas Jefferson).
With the Senate and White House in Democratic hands, it’s unlikely that the survey will actually fall by the wayside. Yet the vote seems important all the same, a watershed moment in the way we conceive of our relationship to the state. With the rise of anti-government sentiment, as championed by the Tea Party, the survey had come under fire as an intolerable measure to coerce private information out of Americans. Michele Bachmann, Tea Partier par excellence, even famously announced that, if chosen to fill out the Survey, she would refuse to do so — technically a crime, although one that is never prosecuted. That wasn’t an accident — opposition to the ACS is so commonplace on the Right that the front page of a Google search for “American Community Survey” pulls up numerous right-wing blogs and an article from the Weekly Standard decrying the measure as ‘Orwellian’.
Others have eloquently defended the necessity of the American Community Survey. While on its face it may seem absurd to collect data on household toilets, information on water usage will come in handy as the American West stares down a possibly cataclysmic water crisis. A government that knows what languages its citizens speak is one better able to ensure that language is no barrier to full participation in democracy. Information is the lifeblood of government.
Through that lens, then, Republican opposition to the Survey becomes easier to comprehend. Choking off aggregated information becomes part of a calculated neoliberal strategy to wither away the state. The vote is particularly telling when coupled with the House’s passage, on April 26, of the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act. A controversial bill likened to the infamous SOPA bill, CISPA would allow private companies to collect and share reams of information about their users, even in contravention of existing privacy laws and terms of service. Among the bill’s supporters were darlings of the Tea Party, including Bachmann and Florida Rep. Allen West. In a neoliberal America, even information-gathering has been outsourced to private enterprise.
To be sure, there are legitimate concerns about the government’s intrusion into privacy — consider, for instance, the reports about the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslims in New York. Yet to a sizable chunk of our political class, the concern isn’t over whether such information is gathered — surveillance is a fact of life — but who collects it. Rather than limit these capabilities to a government over which we, as citizens, exercise some limited amount of control, they have opted to hand it over to private companies accountable to, at best, a small coterie of shareholders. This neoliberal privatization isn’t a new development, of course — David Harvey traces it back, convincingly, to at least 1979. And on Thursday, another small bit of public life was symbolically sacrificed. It will be missed.