Thursday, November 27th, 2014

U.S. Census meets the Truth-O-Meter

The 2010 Census has just 10 questions. But will conservatives fill it out?
The 2010 Census has just 10 questions. But will conservatives fill it out?

By now, most people have gotten the 2010 census in the mail. And for the first time, the U.S. Census has provided a way for the public to keep track of return rates -- by state, city and zip codes.

With billions of federal dollars and political leverage at stake, most politicians are urging all residents to participate and be counted.

This year, however, some Republican leaders have raised questions about whether the census' questions expand too far beyond the intent of the Constitution, and whether the government can be trusted to keep personal information private.

That has Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., worried. As the ranking Republican on the House subcommittee that oversees the census, he's concerned that skepticism about the census being fanned by "blatant misinformation" coming from "otherwise well-meaning conservatives" within his own party (Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, have been the most vocal census critics) will discourage Republicans from fully filling out their forms. And that's bad for Republicans, McHenry said.

"Few things will make Nancy Pelosi happier than large numbers of conservatives failing to respond to the census," McHenry wrote in an op-ed for the conservative Red State. "If we do not respond, we will not be counted, and if we are not counted, then we effectively will not exist. That would reduce conservatives’ power in elections, allow Democrats to draw more favorable congressional boundaries and help put more tax-hiking politicians in office."

We took a look at several of McHenry's claims about the census in the Red State article, as well as in a press release he issued.

The first relates to the very premise guiding McHenry's concerns, that "early census returns are showing that conservatives have been measurably less likely than liberals to return their census forms." We found that claim was based on the thinnest of underpinnings, and is largely unsupported. It earned a False rating.

Next, we looked at two claims that seek to allay Republican fears that the census is too prying and cumbersome.

The first is that "the most private question on this year’s form asks for an individual’s race and that question has been asked by every census since the 1790 census conducted under then-President George Washington." We examined the census questionnaires all the way back to 1790, and found that they provide interesting insight into changing attitudes about race over the course of U.S. history. While every census dealt with race issues, it hasn't always been a matter of "check your race here." In the first census in 1790, for example, the census asked about the number of free white males and females; the number of "other free persons" and the number of slaves. We rated this one Mostly True.

We also looked at McHenry's claim, "This census is also the shortest and least intrusive count in modern history." The 2010 census has just 10 questions. That's two more than the short form in 2000, but in 2000, one out of six households would get a long form, which had 53 questions. There is no short form this year -- everyone gets the 10-question version. So it's arguable which of those is shorter. No other census in modern history comes close to being as short as 10 questions. And so we rated this one Mostly True.

As a bonus, we draw your attention to one more census claim, courtesy of our friends at PolitiFact Texas. It's a claim from U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, that a census audit found more than 370,000 Texans were missed by the 2000 census, costing $1 billion in federal aid. They found that Reyes' claim relies on an outdated report based on numbers the Census Bureau has said were flawed. It earned our worst rating, Pants on Fire!