The Fuel of Fear

by Steve Stofka

January 12, 2020

The Constitution requires that a census be taken every ten years. The first census in 1790 counted almost four million people. The Census Bureau estimates the population at 330 million now, a hundred-fold increase (Census Bureau, 2019). The Constitution was a hard-fought bargain between representatives of regional interests. Politicians in the North and South distrusted each other. Southern states estimated that they would gain the most population growth in future decades because the growing season was longer in those states, and most people depended on agriculture for their existence. Until those population trends developed, the South worried that the more populous North would dominate Federal policy (Klarman, 2016). Our lives are impacted by the fear and distrust of our founders.

Minority and isolated rural communities are at risk of being undercounted because they distrust government. Minorities may have come from a country where there is good reason to distrust government. Indian tribes have several hundred years of reasons to distrust state and federal governments. Response rates to the census questionnaire vary dramatically. In some of the 3000 counties nationwide, responses are only 20%. In some, the response rate is 80-85% (C-Span, 2020). An advocacy group testifying before the House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing this week estimated that 400,000 Latino children aged 0-4 were not counted in the 2010 census (C-Span, 2020). Pre-school programs for at-risk Latino children receive less funding when the government doesn’t know those children exist.

During the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt and a Congress ruled by the Democratic Party made an abrupt shift in the role of the Federal government. Until then, the policies of state governments had a more direct impact on the lives of most Americans. Today, the Federal government is involved in every aspect of our lives. Census counts determine the distribution of hundreds of billions of Federal tax dollars each year.  Political scammers rely on the fact that minority populations are fearful, and they spread disinformation about the census to fuel that fear and help reduce the population counts of those communities. Because so many federal programs are tied to the census, people who are fully counted in one state benefit if those in a neighboring state are under counted. The counting of people has become a political sport.

Politicians are afraid of losing the jobs they worked hard to get in the first place. Their interests become aligned with companies whose campaign contributions help protect a politician’s position. Some fault the private market for overpriced drugs and high housing costs but it is the failure of policy makers to respond to the interests of the constituents who voted them into office. Politicians respond instead to the wishes of pharmaceutical, energy and real estate companies. A dominant company in an industry does not want competition. They lobby politicians to craft policies that make the market less free to protect their market domination. It is not the role of private companies to respond to a broad constituency of voters. That is the role of politicians, who blame the private market instead of their own public policy. Then they call for more public policy failures to fix private industry. Private industry increases their lobbying and campaign contributions in response.

Humans have a proclivity for fear and are more alert for negative experiences. Psychologists calls it a negativity bias (Cherry, 2019). For good and bad, fear infected our Constitution at the outset and drove the founders to craft a Constitution of compromise. Smaller states feared the majority will of the larger states. The founders feared the power of the British Parliament and the king just as minority populations fear the government today. Driven by fear for their own political survival, politicians sought the support of the few at the expense of the people who voted them into office. Then and now, we fuel our public policies with fear of the other, whoever we think that is. Our country becomes ruled by fear.

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Notes:

Cherry, K. (2019, April 11). What is the Negativity Bias? VeryWellMind. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/negative-bias-4589618

C-Span. (2020, January 9). Hearing on 2020 Census: Response rates. [Video, Transcript]. Retrieved from https://www.c-span.org/video/?467977-1/hearing-2020-census&start=12401

C-Span. (2020, January 9). Hearing on 2020 Census: Latino children. [Video, Transcript]. Retrieved from https://www.c-span.org/video/?467977-1/hearing-2020-census&start=13069

Klarman, M.J. (2016). The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution. New York: Oxford University Press. Pg. 192.

Photo by Drew Graham on Unsplash

U.S. Census Bureau. (2019, July 1). Quick Facts. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/PST045219

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