TCS Daily

The Senseless Census: A Solution

By Jon N. Hall - June 7, 2010 11:33 AM

NEW YORK - JANUARY 04:  A sample Census form i...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

The original purpose of the census was apportionment -- the drawing of congressional districts so that each would contain roughly the same number of Americans. To do this, the census must count heads and get their addresses. This has not been a mystery since the advent of computers.

Computers are used in statistical sampling. Jordan Ellenberg, a professor of mathematics at UW-Madison, made an impassioned plea for using sampling in the census on May 1 in The Washington Post. It was titled: "The census will be wrong. We could fix it."

But in Department of Commerce v. United States House of Representatives (1999), the Supreme Court ruled against the use of sampling in the census. Justice O'Connor delivered the Court's opinion: "The District Court below examined the plain text and legislative history of the [Census] Act and concluded that the proposed use of statistical sampling to determine population for purposes of apportioning congressional seats among the States violates the Act. We agree."

To those with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To those armed with higher math, perhaps everything looks like a hairy math problem: Why use arithmetic when we have calculus? The use of statistical sampling in the census might be appropriate, but only if it were impossible to get a count. But is there a method for getting a count?

The most reliable way to accurately count 300 million heads is by putting everyone into a key-sequenced file whose key is the social security number. The feds already do this. But the one datum that would make an accurate count possible (the SSN) is mysteriously absent from the Census Bureau's list of questions. So one might wonder if the Bureau is really serious about accuracy.

Every U.S. citizen is already on file with the feds -- they're listed on the database at the Social Security Administration. And the SSA database is continually getting updated with births, deaths and naturalizations. So, if one wants an exact count of the U.S. population, the way to get it is to write a computer program that reads through the SSA database and counts heads as it goes. There's no need for higher math, like statistics -- simple addition will do. The program would take about five minutes to write.

There's one little snag with this method: Although all citizens are on file with the feds, only some of them have their addresses on the SSA database. Apportionment requires that the feds know everyone's address.

But most Americans are also on other federal databases, like the IRS's. The IRS itself takes a partial census annually, and the 1040 forms taxpayers must file by April 15 must list address, that essential census datum. The IRS also keeps track of kids' addresses: Line 6 on Form 1040 requires the taxpayer to list his dependents, their social security numbers and whether they live with the taxpayer.

Also, taxpayers who remit quarterly payments are required to inform the feds each quarter if their address has changed. On the 1040-ES stub sent in with one's quarterly payment, one is directed to the instructions booklet in the event one's address has changed. In the first section of those instructions is this command: "If your address has changed, file Form 8822, Change of Address, to update your record."

So, not only is the taxpayer required to inform the feds of his address every year, he may be informing them every quarter, too. Upshot: The feds probably already know your address; otherwise they couldn't have snail-mailed you that form demanding that you send them your address.

Some folks, however, "fall through the cracks"; they live off the underground economy and don't file tax returns. The Census Bureau is not likely to ascertain their addresses. But it isn't right that the income taxpayer is required to continually keep the feds abreast of his whereabouts while others are not. And now the Tax Policy Center reports that 47 percent of households pay no individual income tax.

The solution is to make everyone a taxpayer -- that is, levy a head tax, or capitation.

If everyone were a taxpayer, there'd be no need for a census; each year everyone would report his address on his tax return. If levied against everyone, all 300 million Americans, a head tax set at $10 would raise $3 billion a year.

Now, some may object that that's just another $3 billion down the old rat hole. After all, Congress is running an estimated $1.555 trillion deficit this year. But the 2010 census will be an estimated $14 billion down that rat hole. "Projecting to 2020, we could be looking at a $30 billion Census," estimates Robert Goldenkoff of the Government Accounting Office.

Not only would the head tax deliver America from our current census system, it would create a national voter registry, eliminating the need to register to vote. (Those who fail to pay the head tax could still vote, however. So don't confuse the head tax with the poll tax, which was found unconstitutional decades ago.)

Requiring everyone to file a tax return would be a great exercise in citizenship and civics; everyone would have a stake in America. Ten bucks for the privilege of living in America is the bargain of all bargains. And a $10 head tax is nothing compared to the other taxes Congress has in store for America.

With modern technology, there shouldn't even be a Census Bureau. Anytime the feds want to know the size of the population, they can just run a program to read through the SSA database and count 'em up.

Yeah, man, but that's so simple.

Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City.


1 Comment

This solution is too logical, accurate and inexpensive to be acceptable to those who want to manipulate the census and the Constitution to their own political ends.

See Jon Hall's article on "Counting Foreigners in the U.S. Census" at

While illegal aliens are being counted and used in Congressional reapportionment, US citizens living or even temporarily abroad at census time are not.

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