Everybody Counts

A guy goes door-to-door for the census and discovers democracy

| January-February 2011

When a woman told me she couldn’t talk because she had thrown up, I didn’t press the issue. And I didn’t contradict the shirtless, thoroughly buzzed young man who glanced at the official list of racial choices, smiled broadly, and said he was a dog. But I did make note to contact these people again, up to five more times, until they gave me an answer I could put on the form. And when an old white guy wearing a baseball cap with an eagle on it said “there are three adults here and that’s all I’m going to tell you” and then shut the door in my face, that was okay. I took out my number two pencil and wrote “03” in the box for question S5 and “REFUSED” under the other questions. It didn’t bother me if the guy was cursing through his closed door while Rush Limbaugh was grinding away in the background. I had a legal right to ask these questions, and I had done my job. He had been counted.

The 23rd version of the U.S. census cost about $14.5 billion. Over the spring and summer of 2010, 635,000 employees (most of them temporary) counted more than 300 million Americans in 134 million housing units. They also reached about 8.3 million more in prisons, nursing homes, college dorms, and other group quarters, as well as in more than 60,000 shelters for the homeless, under bridge abutments, and even in caves. It took less than $2.8 billion to count 72 percent of the initial housing units—those whose inhabitants simply received a form in the mail, filled it out, and sent it back. More than $5.2 billion was spent chasing people who either didn’t get a form or ignored it. The “nonrespondents” were mostly young, poor, rural, or transient. They were pursued by a legion of badge-toting men and women who hoisted shoulder bags emblazoned with a large census logo. For a few weeks, I was in that army. I was curious to meet some of those slackers and ask them why they had neglected their civic duty.

Censuses form the political infrastructure of representative government. They are ancient—Moses took one in the Book of Numbers, and Mary and Joseph were on their way to a census taker when they stopped at the manger—but the older ones were usually used to collect taxes or form armies. The United States was the first country to use a census to determine political representation for its citizens. That stipulation is in article 1, section 2 of the Constitution. The last several U.S. censuses have also determined the distribution of federal aid to localities: about $450 billion a year in 2008, or $1,470 for every man, woman, and child, according to the Brookings Institution.

An old joke says that demographers are people who wanted to be accountants but lacked the personality for the job. As a reporter who is inordinately fond of demographers, I understand what the people-counters are up against. For the 2010 count, $338 million was spent on advertising and marketing, yet the shoulder bag I wore was emblazoned with the motto “Helping You Make Informed Decisions.” How’s that for a hook? Most of the people I talked to already knew that government workers would be coming around asking questions, but they didn’t really know why. So I wasn’t surprised when a woman sitting on her porch said, “I got that form and started filling it out, but I threw it away when they asked me what my race was. What business does the government have asking me that?” Well, I tried to explain, the race question is used for a lot of good things, like enforcing civil rights laws, distributing aid to public schools, and providing basic facts for public health programs.

“That’s not right,” she replied. “I’m white and I’m poor. Why don’t they care about me?” They actually do, I said; there are a lot of programs out there to help people in poverty, but government data on income is based on the American Community Survey, which is different from the census. All I want to know is your name, address, and phone number; whether you own or rent your apartment; whether you ever stay at another address; and the names, birthdays, sex, race, and family relationships of everyone who lives with you. I don’t think I changed the woman’s mind. But I helped her pass the time while she was taking a smoke break, and she was appreciative enough to answer the questions.