Confessions of a Census Worker

Amba Guerguerian Sep 8, 2020

As I get ready to go out for a shift of census work, I try to think about how my outfit might make me seem more trustworthy to the strangers whose doors I will soon be knocking on. I’ve tried a few different looks so far: straight professional, chill city girl, plain Jane. I always make sure to wear hoops to prove how femin — approachable I am. 

The chances of accurate reporting being completed by the end of the month are bleak if not impossible.

Once satisfied by my attempts at self-marketability, I set out to enumerate. “Enumerate” is the word that the U.S. Census Bureau uses to describe what in-person census takers do: knock on the doors of those that have not yet completed a census questionnaire for their residence in an attempt to have them fill one out with you then and there. 

Armed with masks and sanitizer, I ask people the questions on the 2020 Decennial Census. Who lives here? What is their age, race and gender? What are their relationships to each other? Not all questions are as straight-forward as they seem. The only options for gender are female and male. If someone is non-binary, they must choose a gender or mark “Don’t know,” or “Refuse,”  as in refuse to answer the question. 

I have to ask respondents if they are of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin. Undocumented Latinx people feel threatened by this question. Luckily, anybody can refuse to answer any question. The next question is race. I am prompted to read to the respondent, “for the census, Hispanic origin is not a race.” Racial options are White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiin or Other Pacific Islander or Some Other Race. Affronted by the wording of the question, Latinx people often don’t know where they fall into the Census Bureau’s definition of race. When I took the census myself, I wondered, “How could something as specific as Alaska Native and as broad as Black both be races?”

Most often assigned addresses within a five-or-so-block radius of my apartment in central Flatbush, I’m happy to get to know the streets of my neighborhood in new ways. The late summer breeze calls people outside. Sycamores and honey locusts provide them shade good for mingling with neighbors. Younger family members roll elders out onto their porches to breathe fresh air. A little girl ineffectively uses a bubble blower, spitting at the plastic instrument. A father teaches his son how to roller skate. “Watch out — I don’t want you going over glass,” he warns. 

Youth programs that could have provided outdoor, pandemic-friendly options for staying active and educated over the summer have been widely defunded. The constant presence of children is not the only reminder that we need to bolster the dwindling public sector, something accurate census data could help with. There is too much litter for the amount of trash cans and too many cops for the amount of crime. (As of 2018, Flatbush’s rate of violent crimes per capita was less than that of the city as a whole.) NYPD stadium lights mark the corners where Black boys congregate. Buses that pass by are full of working-class people who still report to their jobs every day, few receiving hazard pay. 

“Are those that have lost work and are cooped up in their apartments all day ever more wary of the government, having all the time in the world to ruminate on its blaring failures to address a crisis? Will they in turn be wary of me because I am wearing this federally issued I.D.?” I wonder as I walk down Flatbush Ave, about two-thirds of whose storefronts are closed. “Will those doors ever re-open?”

I do not fear enumerating alone as a young woman, although my family members and people I encounter on the job warn me that I should be. People offer me water. They are not possessive as I speak with their kids. They talk to me while they are cooking dinner. They show their vulnerabilities, expressing their fears about sharing their personal information or admitting that they don’t know what the census is. I leave a voicemail walking home after my first day out, “Neighbors are not to be feared, Mama.” 

Strangers and their houses do not scare me. If anything, I scare them. Some show trepidation or outright refusal when I arrive at their doors. Buzzers often go dead as I try in vain to sputter out what the census is and why it’s important to complete. Point blank, many folks don’t trust government officials or solicitors, which, despite my styling efforts, I am commonly mistaken for. 

I wish people would trust me but I get why they don’t. Mistrust of the government was already steadily on the rise and then we were blitzed by the coronavirus. On April 8th, a reported 799 New Yorkers died of it. Politicians had a heyday with the word “unprecedented.” I was befuddled. Is it not in their job description to have in place plans for disaster? To expect it?

Walking away from a door behind which someone said, “I can’t give you that information,” I think again about the faults of my government. Again, I spiral: “Why didn’t they use some of the Pentagon’s budget to slip notes under peoples’ doors explaining the importance of the census in the funding of social services? Why didn’t they use some of the NYPD budget to slip notes under peoples’ doors explaining they could get free COVID testing? Why, during a pandemic, are they letting prisoners rot away in disease-infested jails?”

As of Sept. 2, only 63 percent of my zone had reported census data. This includes all of the residences that self-reported. We have to finish by Sept. 30th. When this date is mentioned, it is often referred to in reference to Donald Trump, the person who abruptly changed the deadline from October 31st to September 30th on August 9th, two days before the first trained enumerators hit the streets. 

There is a tangible fear amongst census workers about not being able to fully enumerate our zones by the end of the month. We often receive notifications about potential bonuses and overtime for those who can work more hours or work more efficiently. With a short four weeks of enumeration left, the Census Bureau is hiring anew. Paradoxically, I just received a message asking if I could travel to southern states as early as this weekend to “get our country counted!” Inter-state travel was not in the job description. 

Despite the extra hiring efforts and the many NGO-sponsored census campaigns, the chances of accurate reporting being completed by the end of the month are bleak if not impossible. In-person enumeration was set to start at the beginning of May, but was put to a halt by COVID-19. Before the pandemic, the deadline for the Census Bureau to submit all data to the president was Dec. 31. Notwithstanding the four-month freeze of operations, that date has not changed.

The census dictates the amount of federal funding each enumerated zone receives. You essentially get a certain amount of dollars per resident to fund public services like education programs, healthcare, roads, housing and more. Census data is also used to decide legislative boundaries and the allocation of the 435 members of the House of Representatives. Only allowing less than two months for in-person enumeration is an affront to both specialized social services and public goods, another advance in the Trump administration’s rampage to cut as much funding from the public sector as it can.

Not surprisingly, Black and Latinx communities are those that are most underrepresented in the census. The authors of Taking Action to Avoid a Census 2020 Crisis, a study published by New York Common Cause and New York Counts, warn the failure to “address the trend of undercounting will ultimately deprive historically marginalized communities of vital public and private resources over the next decade.”

To make matters worse, there are the Trump administration’s attempts to add a question to the 2020 census regarding citizenship. Fortunately, the Supreme Court upheld a lower-court ruling which stated that this would deter too many undocumented people from partaking and result in an inaccurate count. Although the citizenship question is not present, many immigrants took heed and therefore don’t feel comfortable sharing their information with the bureau. 

Like immigrant families and the post office, the census has been under attack since before Trump came into office. In 2014, Congress decided that the 2020 census budget would be no more than that for the 2010 count, not taking into consideration inflation. The Census Bureau has since had to cut jobs, programs and surveys. 

The current census deadline and underfunding of the Census Bureau are reflective of the Trump administration’s recent suggestion that they might cut federal funds provided to “liberal” cities such as Seattle, Washington, D.C., New York, and Portland. We can’t afford to cut more social programs. If we lose funding, how grim might the future be?

With this storm at the forefront of my mind, I walk around Flatbush, trying to explain that we need accurate census reporting now more than ever. When I leave a notice of visit at someone’s door, I add my personal touch to the frugally worded, generic memo: “Please complete the census so Brooklyn can get the funding we need! Thanks! :).” I know my actions are futile. One enumerator with her own pen and a pair of hoops can’t save the city. I think to myself, “Irrational hopes must be a survival mechanism. More of those will soon be needed.”

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