A Human Face for the Census

A MILD May breeze nudged the Stars and Stripes in the Chelsea, Mass., high school classroom. With our right hands raised, we swore to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States of America. A dozen men and women - white, black, brown, yellow - had joined the largest posse ever assembled on this continent, 300,000 Census Bureau enumerators. The situation: An alleged 92 million residents of 37 million US households had not mailed back a 1990 census form by April 1. Our mission was NRFU - nonresponse follow-up. Track them down and quiz them.

The job title ``enumerator'' may have an ominous ring, but the work is benign - and important. The 435 seats in the US House of Representatives will be reapportioned next spring on the basis of census data. A population difference of only 235 people in 1970 gave Oklahoma an additional seat at Oregon's expense.

And billions of dollars in federal aid flow where the census leads them. For example, the number of people 18 and older who have fewer than five years of schooling determines the amount of money each state gets under the federal Adult Education Act. The number of children between the ages of five and 17 in poor families determines the amount of money given to each county under the Elementary and Secondary School Act. And the number of people unemployed or with low incomes determines if a community qualifies for assistance under the Public Works and Economic Development Act.

With such important ramifications of our work, and with only five weeks to canvas the countryside, we enumerators would need the relentlessness of Arnold Schwarzenegger's ``Terminator'' to get the job done.

In Alaska, the enumerators started early. Outfitted with survival gear and sleeping bags, they raced to visit Indian villages before the spring thaw and the annual dispersal of the tribes.

Enumerators on cross-country skis probed Idaho's woods. Others breached the wilderness by jet boat, venturing 75 miles up the Salmon River. Rising water in Texas didn't stop one census taker: He visited flooded households by rowboat. Says a Census official in Dallas: ``If they can't work, they don't get paid.''

One Arizona census district encompasses eight Indian nations, including the Havasupai. They live in an area unreachable by road at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The Census Bureau considered sending the bulky forms in by raft. Tribal members did the enumerating, but their trainer had to backpack in and camp overnight.

To the challenges of climate and geography, add some people's reluctance to be noticed. Northeast Washington State attracts seekers of solitude and alternative lifestyles. Enumerators there combed thousands of acres of forest for the log cabins of new arrivals.

An elderly Mississippian, whose home had been vandalized so many times that he feared all comers, shot an enumerator. The fellow lived; in fact, he resumed the census work. ``We were impressed,'' said a coworker.

My moonlighting as an enumerator was a once-in-a-decade chance to penetrate the statistics, to find the census's human face. Here's what I saw:

A FILTHY sky leaks like a ruptured trash bag as I splash up the steps of a decaying apartment building. Inside, exposed wiring clings like withered ivy to the lobby walls. Bare fluorescent bulbs reveal the sagging stairs.

The superintendent has warned me over the phone that this property has ``problems,'' and so it appears. I check my list of nonresponse addresses and press a doorbell. From above comes a loud buzz. Somewhere, a door bangs open.

A man stomps to the head of the stairs but tries to keep out of sight. He peeks down at where I stand, trapped between the rain and the locked glass door. Without a word, he stomps back to his apartment.

Buzzzz! The man reappears. ``Don't ring the buzzer,'' he shouts and disappears.

BUZZZZZZ! He returns clenching two feet of broom handle. ``Don't ... ring ... the buzzer.'' His door slams.

My finger rests on the button as I hesitate. Why does the census incense so many? As encounter after encounter shows, a substantial number of people find questions from the government not just rude, but threatening.

``Is my landlord going to see this?'' asks a man whose girlfriend has quietly moved in.

``This is just for the Census Bureau, right?'' a mortgage company employee inquires before putting a value on a foreclosed condo.

``Is this going to mess me up on my student-aid money?'' a waitress wants to know.

``Oh, no,'' I say and flourish a Privacy Act notice. ``This is secret, even from the IRS [Internal Revenue Service], for 72 years.''

Until now, my most difficult case had concerned an Arab woman. She wouldn't open her door a crack, even after I slid my badge underneath. So I hollered the questions from the hallway. She hollered responses right back. So much for privacy. (Perhaps, in retrospect, a conservative Muslim upbringing would not allow her to meet face to face with a man outside her family.)

At this moment, as I stand locked entirely out of the building, there's no chance to reassure the man with words or documents, nor to warn him that he's required by law to respond to the census. Not that violating the law scares anyone: The misdemeanor offense brings a fine of up to $100. The government last tried to prosecute in 1970, when some radio stations encouraged listeners not to give information to the Census Bureau (remember Woodstock and Kent State?) but only one conviction has been upheld. The success of the census rests on voluntary cooperation - nothing else works as well.

I lift my finger from the doorbell and walk to a pay phone. The superintendent agrees to act as an intermediary with the reluctant resident, ``a very nice young man,'' he assures me.

A few minutes after the near confrontation we're standing at the threshold in question. Eventually the super coaxes someone out, a relative of the nice young man with the broom handle. No explanation for the earlier behavior is sought or offered. I get the data and go.

AT the other extreme are those who have nothing to hide. These people wouldn't balk at the original census procedure, which was to post the forms ``at two of the most public places ... to remain for the inspection of all concerned.''

They offer a chair, a drink. They treat ``What year were you born?'' as a conversation opening. Asking for a value estimate evokes an analysis of the real-estate market.

When their forms are complete, these folks seem to regret the narrowness and brevity of the Bureau's interest in them. Hands clasped hopefully, as though finishing an audition for something, they give me a look that asks, ``Did I win?'' Their goodbyes are tentative, upwardly inflected, as if I'll be right back.

Hospitality is pleasant and makes taking the census easier, but needless conversation must be minimized, enumerator training stresses. Our pattern is TV's Sgt. Joe Friday: ``Just the facts, ma'am.''

Sometimes we get exact answers, sometimes not. There is the college student who knows the birthdays of her roommates - all five of them. Then there's the Laotian man who doesn't know his wife's age, and hasn't bothered to ask her by the third time I call back to get that last detail.

Some landlords have no records of their tenants' names. Some people know neither first nor last names of others sharing their abode.

One sunny afternoon, a handful of Brazilians are stumped by the meaning of ``race.'' A translation dictionary is brought to the kitchen table. They say the Portugese word and shrug in turn. I pinch my skin. They pinch theirs.

Finally, one writes: ``RH positive.''

One thing the Brazilians and everyone else can tell me, in English, is how much rent they pay. Often it is shockingly high: The cost frequently soars well into the ``$1,000 or more'' top bracket on the form.

One of the most delicate questions concerns relationships: Are two people who reside together family members, roommates - or unmarried partners? I make a point of reading the ``unmarried partner'' choice to a 40ish man who lives with another man his age, neither ever married. As the implication sinks in, he insists with muted outrage that ``roommate'' is correct. On another day in a couple's living room, the man mutters ``roommate,'' but the woman firmly overrules him. He slinks from the room.

In most such cases, and contrary to appearances, ``roommate'' is claimed regardless of which sex is doing the answering, as if even ``unmarried partner'' is too much of a commitment.

Until 1890, the average number of persons per household was more than five. The average this time is expected to be 2.6, the lowest on record.

For the source of this trend and many others, look in the astoundingly relevant ``Democracy in America,'' by Alexis de Tocqueville. ``The Americans ... have found out,'' he wrote 150 years ago, ``that in a democracy the independence of individuals cannot fail to be very great, youth premature, tastes ill-restrained, customs fleeting, public opinion often unsettled and powerless, paternal authority weak, and marital authority contested.''

AT one meeting with Mike, my census crew leader, I'm particularly proud. I had completed several difficult cases the night before, one by collaring a woman who was dashing off to a rendezvous.

Mike listens to this and then warns me that I'm underperforming. Average productivity is three forms for every two hours billed.

He's right. I have been too determined to track down the most reliable sources of information - never-resident residents, landlords with unlisted phone numbers - when I should settle for ``last resort'' information. Unanswered, I have persisted in knocking on doors at any sign of life beyond. I have visited one condo in vain so many times that the scent of a certain air freshener transports me mentally to that building's lobby.

That won't do, not at $7.50 an hour times the 300,000 of us. Uncle Sam has his eye on all the meters. The census is already $150 million over its $2.6 billion budget, thanks to the whopping 37 percent of the population who did not mail in forms (many, like the entire town of Ross, Calif., never received them) and thereby caused a larger-than-expected need for enumerators.

Whatever the reason, the cost works out to $10.40 for each of the approximately 250 million US inhabitants the census is expected to count, more than twice the 1980 cost and nearly 1,000 times the 1790 per capita cost.

WITH a French diplomat's gift for flattery, de Tocqueville wrote that ``if I were asked ... to what the singular prosperity and growing strength of that people ought mainly to be attributed, I should reply - to the superiority of their women.''

Two females I meet make lasting but opposite impressions.

First is a pretty teenage immigrant. She counts the number of days each month that the father of her two squalling toddlers lives with her. He lives mostly with his mother, she concludes; I don't list him at her address.

What surprises is the way she refers to the man occasionally in her life. She talks of him from the children's perspective, and even then as ``the father,'' not as ``their father'' or ``the father of my children.'' Just ``the father.'' Her words disown him, as if after obtaining the children herself, she discovered his unexpected connection.

She mentions the rent. It's too high; she hopes to move to a shelter. Around the corner, in contrast, lives a man not much older than she is. He owes no money on his $200,000 condo.

The second female is not yet a woman. She is native-born, but a hybrid of races so unusual that I can't write it for fear of violating the census rule against identifying individuals.

I'm sitting just inside the door of a tidy but scantly furnished studio apartment. This area has been made into a tiny anteroom: A curtain hung from the ceiling partitions off the space beyond that is kitchen, living room, and bedroom for a family of four.

The tenant is wrestling with my questions when his daughter, perhaps five years old, bounces past the curtain. Far from shy, she approaches and looks me in the eye. I'm taken aback by her poise and directness of gaze. She answers along with her father, and in better English. Her confidence and self-assurance seem out of place in the poor surroundings, as perhaps Lincoln's did in his log cabin.

Who's to say that she won't be president 50 years hence? It hits me that I'm starting her on that road, fulfilling her initial act in the US political process. Her existence, recorded for the first time in the 1990 census, counts as a vote in next spring's reapportionment of the House of Representatives.

JULY 4th is upon us. By now we should have visited 100 percent of known addresses in the US. All that remains is a ``Were you counted?'' advertising campaign. (If you're in doubt over whether you were counted, call 1-800-999-1990).

Most of us enumerators have handed in our badges and returned to civilian life. I suspect that others feel as I do, that we have something extra to celebrate this Independence Day.

The census is like those ``Day in the Life of ...'' books, containing photographs taken around a country in a single 24-hour span. By trudging door to door, noting particulars, we helped gather the data that are like the fine-dot pattern of a photograph. Separately insignificant, together they form the 10-year family reunion portrait of the American people, something to pore over with wonder until we pose again in the year 2000.

Happy birthday, America.

E pluribus unum.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to A Human Face for the Census
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today