AAI- Helen Samhan

Posted by AAI- Helen Samhan on March 31, 2010 in News Clips

As census forms arrive in households across the country, arguments are surfacing that aim to frighten people — in South Florida and throughout the nation — from participating. They must be corrected. The consequences of avoiding the census are real, because an undercount costs those areas millions of dollars in lost federal assistance that is tied to population totals.

One fear is that individual census responses will not be kept safe. Every Census Bureau employee has taken a lifelong oath to protect the confidentiality of census responses. Any employee who reveals any personal census information is subject to severe penalties — including a fine of up to $250,000, imprisonment of up to five years, or both. The Census Act explicitly says that no other government agency, law-enforcement agency, national-security agency, court or anyone else can access census responses — not anyone, not for any reason. Just recently, the Justice Department confirmed that the Patriot Act does not override the confidentiality of census responses.

Some have expressed concern about the use of census data for racial profiling. An episode earlier in the decade that concerned tabulations of Americans with Arab ancestry was something my organization took very seriously, as did the Census Bureau. The bureau recognized that even though no confidential or individual information was disclosed, and the data provided to another agency is publicly available on the census website, the sharing of statistical data sets caused a problem in perception.

The bureau’s response included creating a chief privacy officer as an additional layer of senior oversight of data requests and made all data requests, from inside or outside the federal government, visible to the public on the census website.

This additional transparency and attention to community concerns reflects a demonstration that at no time should lapses in confidentiality — such as occurred during World War II and the internment of Japanese Americans — be permitted to recur. The legacy of those wartime abuses is that Congress enacted even stronger safeguards to protect against the misuse of census tabulations and made stronger legal provisions to protect data confidentiality.

In the current political climate it is easy to discredit the work of the federal government and dismiss the value of its bureaucracy. In the case of the Census Bureau, I am impressed by the caliber and commitment of its workforce. I also respect the leadership of its new director, Dr. Robert Groves, a noted scholar and statistician. I am convinced we have a Census Bureau director who is committed to a complete and accurate census and to keeping our individual responses safe and secure, with tough federal laws to back him up.

America has come a long way since the first census in 1790, and there have been missteps in the past 220 years. But those missteps are not what matter today. What matters today, as we approach Census Day on April 1, is the real benefit that a full count brings to the cities and counties where we live and to a fair apportionment of our political representation.

Turning our back on the 2010 Census, out of mistrust or apathy or resentment, is simply not smart or in our best interests.

This article appeared in the March 31, 2010 Opinion, “Other Views” section of The Miami Herald. Click here to view it.

Helen Hatab Samhan is executive director of the Arab American Institute Foundation and its Census Information Center and serves as Arab American representative to the Decennial Census Advisory Committee of the U.S. Census Bureau.


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