Opinion: Carolina Beat

Focus On Fairness From Census Paints Troubling Portrait of America

RALEIGH — “Don’t ask unless you are willing to hear [can deal with] the answer.” That advice comes to mind after I’ve been wondering whether Americans now comprise a nation of takers and are no longer creators, innovators, or rugged individualists.

Census 2010 prompted that question. “Without a complete, accurate census, your community may not receive its fair share,” read the government’s letter sent to my house. Americans should fill out the form and thereby “help each community get its fair share.”

No mention about duty or responsibility or that being a good American requires one to fill out the census. The point here is not to argue for any of the aforementioned justifications or the constitutionality of the modern-day census.

The point is this: The Census Bureau is encouraging people to fill out the forms and using language that resonates with the public. It chose to use continually, in print and on the radio and television, “fair share.”

The phrase “fair share” is bothersome. For starters, who defines the amorphous “fair share”? How much is it anyway? Is it an amount or a percentage? When money is placed into a process in which politicians owe others favors and in which senior members have more influence than junior members, a genuine, equitable, and evenly distributed “fair share” for all is impossible.

The census was not intended to help hand out a “fair share.” It was designed to ensure that each state had the appropriate number of congressional representatives.

According to the Census 2010 Web site, the entire population of 1790 United States was less than the current population of Los Angeles. Then, 220 years ago, the United States had 105 representatives for a little less than 4 million people. That’s one representative for approximately 40,000 people.

Today, the U.S. population (approximately 300 million) has 435 congressional members, and that number has been the same since 1911, when the population was approximately 90 million. In 2010, there is one representative for every 690,000 Americans.

Our representatives often may fail to represent our interests because representation, as originally intended in 1789, is nowadays unworkable. If we tried to have the ratio of legislator to constituents today that we had in 1790, there would be about 5,000 representatives on Capitol Hill.

But back to my original point: The main purpose of the 2010 Census seems to be to ensure that each community receives its “fair share,” and proper representation appears to be a secondary concern.

Admittedly, if the national government is going to allocate money, bureaucrats should know how many people live in various states and cities. According to the Census 2010 Web site, more than $400 billion will be spent on such things as “better infrastructure. More services.” This will ensure that there is a “brighter tomorrow for everyone.”

That’s right. More government funding ensures your “fair share,” and that makes certain “a brighter tomorrow.”

Readers will not often find me quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, a 19th-century philosopher and Transcendentalist. He was right, though, when he wrote: “The true test of civilization is, not the census, nor the size of cities, nor the crops, but the kind of man that the country turns out.”

The census has moved beyond being a tool to implement proper representation; it’s a ticket to largesse. Maybe that’s what the government is in the business of doing now: taking money from creators and everyday Americans and distributing the largesse.

We may receive what some define as a “fair share,” but a belief in a “fair share,” as it is used today, is turning a once muscular America into flab.

Dr. Troy Kickler is director of the North Carolina History Project (northcarolinahistory.org).