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CNN Today

Census Questions: Offensive Or Helpful?

Aired March 30, 2000 - 1:26 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Nobody ever said doing a head count of 275 million people, give or take, would be easy, and it's not. But as the U.S. Census Bureau is finding out, the really hard part is persuading millions of Americans to share some of their most personal information with the federal government.

CNN's Carl Rochelle joins us now with the Census-takers' bid to seem more like a good neighbor, and less like a big brother.

Right, Carl?

CARL ROCHELLE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right, Kyra.

They want you to know that the information on that form is important. With only a couple of days left, the deadline runs out, the first of April, that to have this form in, to mail the form in. They're still not up to 50 percent.

And the part of the problem is right here with this form. This is the long form of the Census. Now, the short form only that has a half-dozen questions on it. But this one has a number of them, that a number of people have found disturbing.

For instance, inside it, it asks you if there is any physical, mental, or emotional problems within the family in the household. And it asks questions like, essentially, "Do you have bathrooms in your house?" "Running water?" "Do you have a telephone? Do you have a complete kitchen?"

Some people find those questions to be offensive and say they don't want to answer them.

Well, complicating the problems, some conservative Republican members of the Congress have said that, well, if there's a question on that that offends you, perhaps you don't need to answer that, without going to the point of saying, you absolutely should not answer it, because that would be a violation of the law. The law does require that the questions on the form be answered. But it's been suggested that, perhaps, it's not important to answer all those questions.

Well, in a news conference today, held at in Fairfax County in suburban Washington, D.C., area, the Census Bureau said that what is asked on that questionnaire is important.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KENNETH PREWITT, DIRECTOR, CENSUS BUREAU: It actually is needed, these information -- this information. There is no question on the long form which has not been put there, because it's either in the law or it's required by a law. That is, the law can not be executed in the absence of this information.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROCHELLE: Even though some of the information isn't used directly, what it does is it provides information, so they can determine how many people are in a given area and what sort of facilities are there. And even such things so simple as determining whether you have a telephone, so you can have a 911 number, so emergency services can be provided.

Now, in defense of this, some Democratic members of the Congress came out today and said they, too, were receiving complaints from some of their constituents about the questions. But they were recommending that you go ahead and fill them out, all of them out, and turn the form in -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Now, Carl, a lot of people may be watching this, thinking: OK, still, why should I care about this? Well, we can get fined for not filling these out, correct?

ROCHELLE: You could get fined. But actually, Mr. Prewitt said this morning that he did not believe in fining, he didn't believe in doing any anything that would tend to stifle the process. He said it's very important to get these questions answered. He said, "I'm not a litigator; I'm a statistician." And if someone wanted to prosecute, that'd be up to the Justice Department. Apparently, there has been no prosecution since the 1960s, of actually charging someone with a crime and fining them against it. He said the important thing is that the information is very important in all of these questions.

Some of them are questions that are asked by sociologists. For instance, the question about the bathroom: They want to know how far along there is. In fact, there would be homes around this country, now, that do not have running water, hot and cold running water. And the question is real specific: Hot and cold running water, a toilet in a lavatory within the house. And kitchen, do you have a full kitchen or just a partial kitchen? They want to know if you have a telephone. That kind of information is helpful in passing things along. It's also helpful in apportioning state funds and federal funds to particular districts, based on the number of people who were there -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: All right, point made: Fill them out. Carl Rochelle, thank you very much.

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