America objects as the census gets too personal

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When Census 2000 forms started arriving in post boxes across the United States this week, the authorities were braced for trouble. But eventhey were taken aback by the scale of the response.

Within 24 hours of the first deliveries, Census Bureau officials had more than 600,000 calls, the majority of them complaints about the probing nature of the questions on race. Phone lines to Congressmen and government departments were jammed and plans to bring in thousands more staff in May to process the returns were speeded up for immediate implementation.

This is a two-tier census. Five out of six households are receiving a white, orange and black form that contains only eight questions, but might seem, to non-white Americans, to betray an unhealthy preoccupation with race.

After asking for the phone number, sex and age of all those in the household, question 7 asks suddenly: "Is Person 1 Spanish/Hispanic/Latino?" with supplementary boxes for "Yes" that include Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban or other Spanish/Hispanic/Latino. Question 8 gives three "colour" options: white, black, American Indian/Alaska native, followed by 11 ethnic options, most of them Asian and the option of writing in something else.

One in six households, however, are receiving a 53-question census. Here, which is where the most indignant complaints have originated, the questions include enquires on income, employment, and method of getting to work. One Senator said he had taken a call from a constituent that went like this: "Is this Al Gore's idea of 'reinventing government'? I have to tell Washington how I got to work? In what type of car? And the location of my office? Screw it, I'll pay the hundred bucks."

That is the fine for refusing to answer the questions - low enough, if enough people object to the questions, to defeat the whole operation.

The fine for answering dishonestly is $500 (£318), but there is no hint of how the answers will be checked unless one of the cardinal principles of Census 2000, the guarantee that the information will not reach any other government department, is violated.

The long form of the census also asks for the language spoken in the household, how well people speak English, whether they are US citizens, mortgage arrangements, and physical or mental disabilities. All the questions, but especially those on ethnic origin, are the product of hard bargaining in government offices and Congressional committees.

The Director of the Census Bureau, Kenneth Pruitt, said yesterday that he expected the head-count to document how much America "has become a microcosm" of the world as its leading multi-racial society.

But the purpose is not just to compile a demographic portrait of the United States on 1 April, 2000. It will also determine allocation of government money and Congressional representation.

The authorities in Georgia take the selfish approach. Send in your forms, they plead, "or Georgia money will be educating New York children for another 10 years". Georgia believes it missed out on federal funding because its population was under-counted in 1990.

Any large-scale civil disobedience over the census will fuel calls for using more estimates next time. The past year has witnessed arguments between those - mostly Democrats - who believe poor people and recent immigrants are wrongly missed in census counts, and those - mostly Republicans - who argue that a census must count real people, and if people decline to be counted or are simply missed, that is their problem.