Census 2000: You May Already Be a Winner!

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April 5 2000 3:00 AM

Census 2000: You May Already Be a Winner!

The Census Bureau sells the 2000 count as a lottery game. 

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The great expansion of the census accompanied the Progressive Era. "By the late nineteenth century," writes Margo J. Anderson in The American Census: A Social History, "the traditional role of the census as a mechanism to apportion political representation faded in importance. The statisticians began to think of apportionment as merely a necessary but relatively routine and unimportant footnote in the whole census effort." Reflecting the Progressive Era's mania for social engineering, "the census also became a full-fledged instrument to monitor the overall state of American society." As the New Deal and Great Society administrations increased the number of federal grant programs, the government began calling on the census to "distribute economic power," as Anderson puts it.

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The Census 2000 ad campaign's "fair share" message hasn't been lost on some parts of the gay and lesbian community. The Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force wants same-sex couples to check the "unmarried partners" box on the census. "All public policy flows from the U.S. Census," said an NGLTF spokeswoman. "If we are not counted, we lose out on federal funding for research, funding for community services and passage and implementation of laws that benefit our community." (NGLTF is considering asking the bureau to include sexual orientation questions in the 2010 census. Some homosexuals might not appreciate being asked. By answering truthfully about their sexual behavior, they confess to what is a felony in many states. By ignoring the questionnaire, they face a $100 fine and 60 days in jail. By lying, they could be punished with a $500 fine and one year in jail.)

The problem with the "fair share" PR campaign isn't that it's a lie. The problem is that it's the truth. The government has become a mechanism for distributing largess, and your census form is your ticket. Yes, the census is like a lottery—almost. The difference is that you get to decide whether to play the lottery. 

is Fellow in Social Thought at the Cato Institute.