Counting everyone so everyone counts: A Census worker on what it’s like | Opinion

The Census is what America is about. It’s why people leave everything they know halfway across the planet. And that’s why they stay: Not just so they can be counted, but because they count

Correction: This story was updated at 10:59 a.m. on Oct. 20 to correct the number of years that data is kept anonymous. 

By Frank Bures

Last summer, in the middle of the pandemic, I spent several weeks approaching strangers, banging on their doors and peppering them with questions about who, and what, they were.

It’s an awkward thing to do, even in normal times, asking: What’s your race? What’s (literally) your tribe? What’s your phone number? Do you own or rent? But such is the life of an enumerator for the U.S. Census Bureau, engaged as we were in the thankless task of counting every person in America.

Early in the year, I’d seen an article that said the Census needed workers — part time, temporary and paid well enough. I had a feeling 2020 was going to be a weird year. Besides, as a freelance writer, I know that work can dry up at any moment. So I sent in an application, assuming it would be boring and easy.

Sure enough, COVID-19 hit and a good chunk of my work died on the vine, since no one wanted to read about anything but the pandemic. I was happy to have some enumerating in my back pocket.

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The census was supposed to take place on April 1. But like everything else, it was postponed. Periodically I got calls asking if I was still interested in the job. Then in July I got scheduled for training in the basement of a church.

We sat at tables that were far apart. We were given black Census iPhones and white cotton face masks. Each day, we had to enter our availability for work. Then, when our shift started, “The Optimizer” would send us a list of addresses to work through.

At home, I plowed through the online training, where I learned the perils of enumeration:  In the 2010 census there had been 5,474 injuries among 860,000 workers (39% slips or falls, 34% car accidents and 27% dog bites).  I also learned how to deal with dogs (avoid them), reluctant interviews (address their concerns) and hostile respondents (trust to your gut).

“Exceptional enumerators,” I was told, “think of each conversation as the beginning of a ten-minute relationship.”

To be honest, I had no hopes that my enumeration would be exceptional. I was shooting for adequate enumeration. I hoped it would keep me busy, earn a little money and not drive me insane.

In August, with such achievable goals, I hit the streets, moving from door to door, following the path that The Optimizer had laid.

It felt good to get out while most people were stuck inside. Yet it was strange to walk through my neighborhood as an outsider. I saw houses I’d never noticed, with overgrown yards, boarded windows and hard lives hiding behind them. I met people I’d never seen before. They came to the door and blinked like they hadn’t glimpsed the sun in years.

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Some were friendly, happily giving me their name, phone number, race and even their racial origins beyond that. Others were skeptical, and had to be reassured that the data would be kept anonymous for 72 years. A handful were swayed by the fact that the data is used for federal funding. As a last resort, I would point out that Minnesota was in danger of losing one of our eight representatives in Congress if we didn’t count enough people.

Still, some people flatly refused to be interviewed, not realizing that The Optimizer would send an endless stream of enumerators back to their address, until they were ground down enough to give some kind of response. They didn’t even have to give us their names or phone numbers. In a pinch, we could ask a neighbor or “witness” how many people lived at an address. The point of the census was to count. The rest was just data for future historians.

For we enumerators, the pandemic was a mixed blessing. On one hand, more people were at home than in a normal year. On the other, since the census was supposed to take place on April 1, all our questions were about who had been living at the address on April 1, not in August.

A surprising number of people had moved since then, even in the pandemic. That meant the people who answered those doors had already filled out the forms for their previous address, and had no idea who was living at the place where they lived now. In such cases, we were supposed to track down the landlord, or a neighbor, to get the information.

Some houses were empty, and would remain empty every time, with no way to find out who lived there or who owned it. Others were vacant Airbnb homes. One or two seemed like disputed properties. It didn’t matter: The Optimizer just kept sending us back to leave Notice of Visit sheets.

Sometimes, while I wandered from empty house to empty house, I tried to picture the The Optimizer, a human-machine hybrid tethered in the bowels of the Decennial Service Center. It had to be some monstrosity engineered to do what I could not: Hold the entire American populace in its head, all the names, all the addresses, all the races and origins stretching across the world with their winding paths to this country.

On paper, a number looks so neat. But here at the point of creation, the count seemed messy and arbitrary. Does a person happen to be home? Are they in the mood to talk? Are they who they say they are?

America felt so big. All those lives. Going from house to house, even in my own neighborhood, I felt overwhelmed by its vastness, by the task of quantification. If I thought about it too much, it gave me something like a panic attack, only more existential. So many people to be turned into data.

To distract myself, I compiled my own statistics:

  • 90% of American doorbells don’t work.
  • 70% of dogs’ bark is worse than their bite.
  • 100% of people will not answer their door until you knock three times.

After about a week, my first “dangerous address” came up. All The Optimizer said was “Cease interview,” which left a lot to the imagination. We had been trained to deal with dangerous addresses, of which there were disappointingly few in my neighborhood. So I made a point of driving by this one. I was further disappointed that it looked so normal — just a small white house with long grass and a child’s play set in the back.

Nonetheless, knowing there were probably a couple more dangerous addresses out there, I drove home feeling like I could be putting my life on the line in the pursuit of adequate enumeration.

Wandering my neighborhood, moving from address to optimized address, the texture of my neighborhood changed. Most people, like me, had white origins running back to Norway, Sweden and other parts of Europe. But I also met people from Australia, Russia, Italy, Mexico, Guatemala and so many other places.

The job wound down. The Optimizer sent me further afield to fewer addresses, while the census got kicked around like a political football. It was unclear how long we would be working, but eventually the end did come.

On one of my last days, I approached a house on my list. Two older Somali women sat in chairs on the porch. They pointed to an empty one and insisted I sit down with them.  Technically I wasn’t supposed to do this, but I did anyway.

Sitting together, we chatted for a few minutes before one of them asked me about my clipboard. She’d heard of the census. She called into the house for her son to come out to help spell the names. By the end, we’d added seven people who lived there.

When our ten-minute relationship was over, I thanked them, and said I should probably get going. They thanked me, and told me to come back. I said goodbye, and they waved from the porch as I left.

As I walked down the street, I felt a certain pride that I don’t usually feel. Their house alone would make up a large chunk of the 26 people who would, when the census was over, allow Minnesotans keep our eighth member of Congress, while New Yorkers lost one of theirs.

To me that’s what America, and the census, was about. That’s why people come here. That’s why they leave everything they know halfway across the planet. And that’s why they stay: Not just so they can be counted, but because they count.

Frank Bures is a writer in Minneapolis. He’s the editor of “Under Purple Skies,” and the author of “The Geography of Madness.” He wrote this column for the Minnesota Reformer, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where it first appeared

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.