democracy

2020: Census Edition – Staff

This is the final segment of a three-part series on the 2020 Census.

Census enumerators included people (like myself) who knocked on the doors and asked the questions to allow people to complete the census in person (remember, all of the national crises are still happening). To many people, a census enumerator was an irritating person who called the apartment management office several times because cases were divided for “efficiency.” Others saw enumerators as the people who wanted citizenship to be put on the survey, and to be uncomfortably invasive. Therefore, every single enumerator got to deal with the distrust with any element of the federal government the second they knocked. Thanks to xenophobic rants and a disinterested federal government, the job was actually harder.

Even in the best of circumstances, none of this work was easy. For something that does not affect people directly in an era of competing issues, it is unreasonable to expect them to thoroughly engage with a process that is so time-staking. It could have taken very little time to count the number of people, and it should have taken very little time to capture race and ethnicity. In 10 years, the technology has changed, so people can have a person to come to their house, enter the data into a smart phone, and have it go directly to the census database, which took a lot less time. Difficulties arose with the amount of detail requested and the expectation of 10 minutes per person. In a household of 4 adults and 5 children, that is easily an hour that many people may not have.

Most people are not hostile. Most people are living their lives and do not care about the census, one way or the other, which is fair. Most of the answers that we got were straightforward and bland, which is why—according to reports—99% of the population has been counted. Once, I went to an apartment complex missing information for over 50 units. By going steadily for three days, even with everybody’s crazy schedules, I could reduce the counts to fewer than 10. However, we could only do that if we were given the time, the proper number of questions, and if we have the money to travel. Those are a lot of ifs.

The most trying barrier was the lack of private collaboration. There was very little symbiosis between public and private entities, even during a year of multiple crises. Many households were vacant because the properties were owned by landlords who lived either across town or across the globe, and people had been sheltering in place. Property owners were a large hurdle because the census is one of the exceptions to the right to access private property under 13 USC § 223. Does that mean that we got to barrel into houses and say, “Answer my questions!” No, because that is illogical and a bit crazy.  However, it would have been more helpful if property managers had simply provided spreadsheets of information to census officials and said, “This is my entire complex, including numbers, with the scrubbed names and dates of birth.” There were several properties where somebody just bought a house or condo as an investment property and hired a property management company, who then failed to either submit the information or put reminders in the homes of their tenants.

None of those people took a moment to consider, “Huh, if the residents refuse to fill out the census, somebody is going to have to tell the Census Bureau how many people live there.” It was extremely difficult to figure out which ones were second homes, group homes, and all kinds of stipulations that would have meant we stopped visiting—meaning that we had more work than we needed. For all those vacant properties, or properties without data, $3500 in resources were gone. Resources were lost because people refused to accept what is lost when somebody is missing from the population count. In Austin, Texas, there were 70,000 households that had not responded, so if Austin were to represent the United States, take out 7% of that number. Fortunately, the hard work of dozens of people reduced that amount, but there were still several uncounted areas. Money loss is money loss, which means the loss of things like unemployment benefits, because the federal government fails to successfully engage its citizenry.

Moreover, working as a temporary worker during a recession with an employer who is constantly trying to terminate staff every single day is beyond stressful. Anybody who had to expend any resources and get reimbursed will be butted up against budgets for entire federal departments, due to the end of the fiscal year. Having the Census end during that time—and to be told, “All right, make sure that everything is calculated and make sure that all the data is accurate and scrubbed”—is lunacy. All of these elements combine to ensure that the Census could never be an annual event as it currently exists. That any aspect of the census could be completed within three months amidst the desperation of the operation—including cancellation, reinstatement, and traveling—is nothing short of a miracle. If anyone thinks that questionable employment status during the entire time of employment is not stressful, then clearly another global crisis is needed. All of these factors combined means that the nation is lucky to know any number of people in the United States. As the head of the federal government himself said, it is what it is.

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