As an elected official, one of my most important responsibilities is to listen. I spend every opportunity I have listening to people’s concerns; whether it’s at a town hall meeting, at a local diner, over the phone or on facebook. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that if Washington spent more time listening, our country wouldn’t face half as many problems as we do today. After all, what often times seems like a good idea in Washington simply doesn’t work in the real world.
That’s why I was so disappointed to read Terry Plumb’s recent opinion piece mocking an important piece of legislation that I wrote (HR 1638, The Census Reform Act of 2013) in response to concerns that I’ve heard from a variety of South Carolinians. As a former Census Bureau employee, I’m sure Mr. Plumb has heard praises from political science professors and government bureaucrats about the value of data collected through these invasive census surveys. But when you talk to the folks on Main Street, you quickly hear the other side of the story.
Most everyone is familiar with the census that is constitutionally required to take place every 10 years. This census is essentially a head count to determine the current U.S. population, which helps determine representation in Congress and a state’s voting strength in the Electoral College. However, what most people don’t realize is that, over the years, Washington has expanded the information required to be collected by the Census Bureau from a select segment of the population.
For example, some residents are selected to participate in the American Community Survey (ACS). For those selected, filling out this 14 page survey is considered mandatory. Those who choose not to answer will have a Census Bureau employee show up at their home and threaten them with a fine up to $5,000.
The ACS requires that residents reveal information like their water, power and gas bills for their apartment or home, mortgage payments, homeowners insurance, level of education and degree type, health status, marriage history, employer’s address and what time they leave for work in the morning.
Those who are unfortunate enough to be selected to fill out these surveys are concerned with privacy. While the Census Bureau already has a legal obligation to keep people’s information confidential, we all know that in an age of cyber attacks and computer hacking, ensuring people’s privacy can be difficult.
Unfortunately, South Carolinians in particular are keenly aware of what can happen when government records fall into the wrong hands. Last year, over four million Social Security numbers, tax records and 387,000 credit/debit card numbers were stolen from the S.C. Department of Revenue by hackers. In this day and age, it is perfectly reasonable for someone to be hesitant to share personal information with the government.
Others have expressed their frustration with what they would consider “government sanctioned harassment.” One concerned citizen shared with me that “these census workers are worse than debt collectors. They get a hold of your cell phone number and call you at work, or they show up at your home while you’re trying to eat dinner, and threaten you with fines if you don’t answer their questions.”
Those who are opposed to this legislation claim that our nation would miss out on vital economic data if these surveys didn’t exist. As a former small business owner, I recognize that some economic data gathering is beneficial. However, it should be voluntary, industry driven and not mandated by the government under penalty of law. I’m confident in our ability to develop innovative ways to gather some information without harassing people, invading their privacy or threatening them with fines. Americans are simply tired of too much government meddling in their daily lives.
While I’ll be the first to admit that this census problem is not as serious as our national debt or our spending addiction in Washington, in some ways the problems are related. When we are nearly $17 trillion in debt, we need to comb through our budget, line by line, page by page, and scrutinize every dollar we spend. Are these census surveys vital? What information is most important? Are there other ways to gather important information while respecting privacy rights and giving people the freedom to choose whether to respond? It is my hope that this bill will help us have that conversation, and that we’ll be able to find better ways of gathering information that we deem important, while remembering that it is never appropriate to trample on anyone’s individual liberties.