Counting everyone: An acid test for a democracy

Taking a census is not one of the more exciting jobs of a national government. But a census is nothing if not democratic, so it can be a canary in a coal mine, an interesting sentinel of deeper problems. Nations as diverse as Canada, Pakistan, Australia and the United States are struggling with the same thing: How to balance privacy while still collecting the data  needed for a fair distribution of spending and electoral representation.

The U.S. Census Bureau hopes to save billions of dollars on Census 2020 with a major overhaul, but it face congressional skepticism about the investment needed. April 1 marked the start of major tests — in Maricopa County, Ariz., and 20 counties around Savannah, Ga.  Among the tests: Internet response and the use of government records when people don’t fill out a form. They will shape the design of a massive infrastructure that must be ready to test by late 2018 so that it can go live in early 2020.

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Governments track people frequently through surveys and data from benefits programs. But only a census counts everyone (or tries to) at the same time and assigns them to an exact place. That seems simple but it’s very hard to do well on a national scale.

Some European nations have shifted away from taking a census in favor of assigning everyone an ID number and keeping a central register of personal data.  Don’t count on Americans embracing this idea.

Our distrust of government is just one reason that the U.S. census is so difficult to take — and so expensive. (Census 2010 cost $13 billion across a decade.) Information-sharing between agencies that is routine in some countries isn’t allowed here. Add mobility, continental sprawl, linguistic diversity and the fears of millions of immigrants living here illegally.

The United States isn’t alone:

— Citing privacy qualms, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper scrapped the detailed version of the 2011 Census for a voluntary survey. Response plunged from 94% to 67%. Citing unreliability, the government did not publish results on more than 1,000 localities where the rate fell below 50%. “One in 4 … towns disappeared from the statistical registry,” said Paul Jacobson, president of the Canadian Association for Business Economics at a Washington conference in March. Even Toronto was affected: “We’ve got hunks of the city that have disappeared from the statistical registry.” In a country that is diversifying rapidly, the gaps worry planners, researchers and businesses.

— Pakistan’s officials have finally agreed to undertake its 2008 census. It will be conducted next March with the help of the armed forces, a sign of the strife and factionalism that has delayed it. Its last census was taken in 1998, when it had 40 million fewer people.

— Australia takes a census every five years but  may skip 2016 to catch up on the cost and work of shifting to digital collection. It’s facing the same efficiency vs. privacy debate  as the USA and Canada.

Lest Americans get smug, the House of Representatives voted last year to make the American Community Survey voluntary. (The Senate did not.) ACS surveys 2.5 million households a year for the same information that the Census Bureau used to collect during the census every 10 years.

Congress, through various laws, has asked for every ACS question. Support for ACS runs deep through local governments and business groups, social scientists, civil rights and  and economic development groups.

But  distrust of government has found a home in Congress.

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