Dollars and census

The problem with ‘fair share’ rhetoric

By Troy Kickler
  • Wednesday, May 12, 2010

"Don't ask unless you are willing to hear [can deal with] the answer."

That advice comes to mind after considering the government's advertising for Census 2010. That advertising makes one wonder whether Americans now comprise a nation of takers and no longer are creators, innovators or rugged individualists.

"Without a complete, accurate census, your community may not receive its fair share," reads the letter the government sent to my house. Americans should fill in the form and thereby "help each community get its fair share."

No mention about duty or responsibility or even the idea that being a good American requires one to fill out the census. This is not to argue for any of the aforementioned justifications or even the constitutionality of the modern-day census. The point is this: The Census Bureau, in encouraging people to fill out the forms, is using language that ostensibly resonates with the public. Continually, it chooses to use, in print and on the radio and television, the phrase, "fair share."

But "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 funneled into a process in which politicians owe others favors and in which senior members have more influence than junior members, any 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. And that is important for the nation and for Nevada, a state in which the population has varied greatly throughout history. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, mining strikes attracted many from the East to the Silver State, and when the excitement waned, some stayed and more than a few traveled elsewhere.

In short, the census ensures that each state (and areas within a state) has proper representation. But much has changed over the last two centuries: Population has increased, and the nature of the census itself is different.

According to the Census 2010 website, the entire population of the United States in 1790 was less than the current population of Los Angeles. Then, 220 years ago, the U.S. had 105 representatives for fewer than 4 million people. That was one representative for approximately 40,000 people.

Today, the U.S. population (approximately 300 million) has 435 congressional members, a number that has been the same since 1911, when the population was approximately 90 million. In 2010, there is one representative for every 690,000 Americans. Perhaps our representatives today frequently fail to represent our interests because representation, as originally intended in 1789, is itself no longer workable. If we attempted to keep the ratio of legislators to constituents the same today as it was in 1790, about 5,000 representatives would be on Capitol Hill.

But back to the primary point: The main purpose of the 2010 census seems to be ensuring that each community receives its "fair share" of government tax loot. Proper representation appears an entirely 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 website, over $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."

Ralph Waldo Emerson, a 19th Century Transcendentalist philosopher, was right, however, 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 is now 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 simply distributing the spoils.

We may receive what some define as a "fair share," but that kind of "fair share" thinking is turning a once muscular America into ... flab.

Dr. Troy Kickler is the director of the North Carolina History Project at the John Locke Foundation and a contributing writer to the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more visit

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