Census form overlooks digital revolution
Of 53 questions, none concerns the Internet or compuers

Published: June 17, 1998

About that house of yours -- does it have a toilet and a bathtub or shower?

Does it get natural gas from an underground pipe?

And if it's a mobile home, does it have an installment loan?

These are not trivial questions to the federal government. They're among the arcane and archaic topics mandated by law to be on the long form of the U.S. Census that's headed for one in every six American households in the year 2000.

But when it comes to the electronic plumbing that's reshaping every facet of American life from education to employment, nobody thought to ask how many Americans have access to the Internet.

Not one of the 53 questions on the upcoming long form will even remotely concern digital technology.

Home acreage, yes. Home computers? No.

Mobile homes, yes. Modems? No.

''This is a colossal mistake that must be rectified immediately,'' said Vanderbilt University Professor Donna Hoffman, one of the country's top Internet demography experts. ''The bottom line is that if not even a single question about Internet access or use makes it into the 2000 census, then someone is asleep at the wheel.''

The decennial census, which will cost an estimated $4 billion to $5 billion, is the government's most significant, detailed and comprehensive statistical road map. Census 2000 is being developed at a time when virtually every piece of the government, including the Census Bureau, is shifting information and services to cyberspace.

The questions on the long form were the result of six years of discussions and review by federal agencies, the Clinton administration and Congress. The Census Bureau, working with the Office of Management and Budget, began soliciting comment from all federal agencies in December 1992. The House and Senate also held several years of hearings. On April 1, the final draft of the long form was submitted to the House Subcommittee on the Census and the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs. While neither committee is planning any further action on the long form, the last-minute addition of an Internet question is still a possibility -- albeit a faint one.

No lobbying

Staffers for both committees say that nowhere in the process can they recall anyone lobbying for including an Internet question. When asked earlier this week, many top technology policy-makers within the Clinton administration -- from the White House to the Commerce Department -- said privately that they would support the idea of an Internet-access question. The data from such a question could represent a statistical platform to shore up the telecom debates the government will tackle in the next few years. Still, no one within the administration has come forward to advocate including a Net-access question.

According to the Census Bureau, every question on the form -- from trolley commuters to telephones -- is mandated in one of three ways. Some legislation explicitly demands the use of the decennial census to gather information on a subject. Other legislation requires some statistics that have historically been harvested from the census or can come only from the census. Finally, a question can be required by a federal agency that needs the data to plan, implement or evaluate programs.

Both Congress and the Clinton administration have been planning and implementing various Net initiatives for several years. Those projects range from Internet-access subsidies for schools and libraries to junk e-mail controls and Internet domain-name policies. Those initiatives have been proceeding despite the fact that the government has only a hazy idea who the Internet constituency really is.

Until now, the best estimates of digital haves and have-nots have come from surveys done by private marketing and research firms. While there is no standard definition of what constitutes Internet use, current estimates put the number of U.S. users between 41.5 million and 57 million.

Only one major study

The federal government's only major study on digital haves and have-nots, ''Falling Through the Net,'' was executed in 1994, before the World Wide Web emerged as a mass medium. That study, done for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) by the Census Bureau, polled just 54,000 households and concerned home computer ownership rather than Internet access. The results showed direct correlations between high income and computer ownership, and high education and computer ownership.

In July, the NTIA will revisit that subject with a study that looks at trends in technology adoption based on data gathered in 1994 and 1997. The update to the original ''Falling Through the Net,'' based on a sample of 48,000 households (and containing more specific Internet-access questions), is not scheduled to be released until mid-1999.

Aside from the NTIA surveys, the only federal statistical tool for gathering significant technology data is the Current Population Survey, a monthly study of 52,000 households done by the Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That survey, which exists primarily to report employment data, has carried questions on personal computer ownership in the past. A Census Bureau staff member said the CPS study would be the most likely place for an Internet-access question to be broached.

The executive ultimately charged with direction of the census, Undersecretary of Commerce Robert Shapiro, says that while an Internet-access question on Census 2000 may be useful for crafting policy, it's not the only way to get an understanding of haves and have-nots. ''There's a lot of very serious policy-making done on the basis of samples,'' he said. ''Those may not be as comprehensive as the decennial, but there are many programs that depend on special surveys. (Census 2000) is not the absolute last opportunity the government will have to ask this question.''

The decennial census has always been the premier vehicle used by government to build the statistical foundations for its most significant public policy debates. Historically, it has also served to gauge how fast new technology is entering the mainstream.

Timing questioned

''It does mirror the technological changes of the day. But most often it follows technological change,'' said Dave Pemberton, the Census Bureau's historian for the decennial census. ''It's after people begin to adopt technologies that the government needs substantial data to answer questions about that technology.''

According to Pemberton, the first question about radio appeared in 1930, the first about refrigeration in 1940 and the first about television in 1950.

Beyond the fact that the Clinton administration and Congress failed to direct the Census Bureau to add an Internet-access question, there may be a secondary reason for its omission: The bureau has been under pressure to compress both the short form that reaches each household and the long form that reaches one in six. The long form, which the bureau estimates will take the average household 38 minutes to complete, has been increasingly viewed as an unduly onerous burden on its recipients. The bureau's chief concern is that a longer list of questions will lower the rate of accurate returns on the form.

For Census 2000, the short form has shrunk from 12 subject areas to seven and will contain just seven individual questions. It is the shortest questionnaire since 1820. The long form will contain an additional 46 questions, five fewer than in 1990. The only new subject to be added to the upcoming long form concerns grandparents as care-givers.

Hoffman maintains that Census 2000 represents a unique opportunity and that waiting until 2010 or beyond to get a comprehensive look at the Internet constituency would be a grave mistake. ''Failing to address the issue of Internet use represents what hindsight will almost certainly show to be an enormous blunder,'' she said. ''It would be mind-boggling, considering what's happened in the past three or four years since the Net went commercial, that the census wouldn't address this issue. It's hard to comprehend.''

Not everyone in the Internet demographics field agrees. Nick Donatiello, president and CEO of the San Francisco research firm Odyssey, said the federal government was wise to avoid asking a question that much of the populace may not be able to answer accurately.

''Getting a correct answer is much more complicated than it appears on the surface,'' he said. ''I think the chances of getting bad data are highly likely with such a question. In order to get it right, you'd have to ask an entire battery of questions.''

When the White House needed up-to-date Internet statistics for a recent presidential address, it turned not to the Census Bureau but to Donatiello's firm, which publishes Internet demographics studies twice a year.

Up to Congress

While Congress traditionally gives the Census Bureau a free hand to craft the form as the bureau sees fit, the final decision ultimately rests on Capitol Hill. Right now, with no further review planned in either the House or Senate, sources in the administration and the Census Bureau say it would take a last-minute directive to get an Internet access question on the form.

''The Internet question is worth asking,'' said Shapiro, the administration's top executive overseeing the census. '' It's getting very late to add questions, but the door is not completely closed.''

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