Author’s note: Originally written in 2010, updated for 2016
By Madonna Hernandez
The desks inside this regional office for the U.S Census Bureau are bare. Food isn’t allowed in the work area, neither are beverages or cell phones. Talking about non-work related matters: also off limits. The office itself is distinctly bland. No bright color or distinguished decor. White and gray and the light of fluorescent bulbs are the main schemes. The only decorations are maps adorning the walls which illustrate the division of the region, in this case it’s referred to as a borough, into distinct geographic separations.
A young woman sits at the telephone, her eyes wander to the ceiling, her body language illustrates that she is apathetic to what the caller on the other end has to say to her. She eats a bag of chips and glances over occasionally to the cell phone which sits in her lap discreetly. As her boss walks by. He doesn’t notice.
The office is too noisy and busy for anyone to really care what anyone else is doing anyway.
What’s everyone busy doing? They’re attempting to make it look like their work actually matters, when it might not.
A friendly supervisor in that same office spends a majority of his day reading the New York Times online while responding to emails from his superiors throughout the day. The emails, like most of the rest of the operation, are filled with contradictions:
“Don’t allow your canvassers to do more than 5 addresses per hour.”
“Revision: don’t allow them to do more than 10”
“Double Revision: ok, don’t allow them to do more than 15”
Confusion is a recurring theme at the census or as some employees in that very office like to call it: The Senseless Bureau.
No civilians are allowed to enter a census office without official federal government security clearance. Once inside, the first sound that greets someone when they enter a local office, in this case one in Downtown Brooklyn, is that of a phone ringing; actually, not one but multiple phones ringing. Continuously. In fact, rarely is there a moment when a phone isn’t ringing. Lots of people are calling the census offices to inquire about a job. Many of them have no idea what the job entails and hardly any of them are really sure what the census is but they heard “it’s a federal job” and “the pay’s real good” and that’s really all that matters.
The person handling the phone call likely was on the other end of that conversation not long ago; they might have been recently fired from their high paying wall street job, or were straight out of college or maybe they hadn’t worked in years, or maybe some have never actually worked a day in their life. All are welcome at the census. Not because they’re necessarily invested in diversity but rather, they’re interested in numbers. The more types of people who are hired will, they hope, entice the varied diverse populations they so desperately seek, to pay attention to the census.
Mistakes are bound to happen with an operation as large and ambitious as this one.
Attempting to account for every single person in the United States is a monumental undertaking. Perception, however, is an integral part of the operation so, outwardly at least, the census must appear to have it all together because so much is at stake.
Every 10 years, the census emerges as a temporary operation staffed by temporary employees run in temporary offices. The information obtained by the census, on the other hand, has a lasting, permanent effect on the communities of America.
In many ways, the decennial US Census is the equivalent of house keys. They’re necessary and vital and both are literally and figuratively the entryway to a type of salvation. But they usually aren’t important enough to remember. We acknowledge their importance but not enough to think about them. Why is that?
Why doesn’t the U.S care about completing a simple, straightforward survey?
In taking a closer look at the inner workings of the decennial census those are not the only questions that arise. A number of vital social, political and economic quandaries are posed. But perhaps the most elusive question remains: how accurate is the information in the census?
The US Census Bureau’s statistics have long been disputed and questioned. The outcry, though, amounts to nothing more than a loud whisper because, the fact remains, that many people aren’t sure what exactly the US census does. And those that do, simply don’t care.
Money, however, is a language that most people, regardless of race, class or social status, speak fluently. In that respect, here are some very important reasons for people to care about the census:
The information obtained from the census questionnaires allocate more than 400 billion dollars in federal money to cities and states all across the United States. The government spent 11.3 billion dollars to operate the 2010 census. American taxpayers had a hand in paying for a 2.5 million dollar 30 second ad during the super bowl. That’s only a fraction of what the Bureau paid in an attempt to make you care about the census. Over 133 million dollars were spent on advertising in 2010. In total, by the time the operation was over, the government spent nearly 340 million dollars. On advertising alone. For a questionnaire. Containing 10 questions.
Clearly, the government thinks the census is important but does anybody else?
The simple answer to that question is no as the return rate of census forms has decreased gradually every 10 years.
Beyond the exorbitant amount of money involved and at stake with the census, there are other reasons Americans might care. Just as with voting, the census should be important to Americans as a symbolic representation of its government and freedoms at work. Or at least important enough to muster up some enthusiasm. The census is a part of our constitution (Article I, Section 2) and has been since 1790. In that respect, it’s as integral to our nation as freedom of speech and the right to bear arms.
“I knew what the census was but I didn’t really understand how important it is until i worked here,” says Maribel Lizardo of Brooklyn. She is Hispanic and Hispanics are a large focus of the census. Partially because they remain the largest growing minority group in America and also because of the never ending debate over illegal immigration. Considering the population of illegal immigrants is somewhere between 12 to 20 million (nearly 8 million are believed to be Hispanic); if not represented, they will be a glaring omission from statistical findings.
Many immigrants remain suspicious of the census. They’re uncertain of whether their participation in the questionnaire will jeopardize their lives or the lives of people they know. History tells us they might be right.
Both sides of the political aisle have had their own questions. Democrats and Republicans harbor respective conspiracy theories about the relevance of the questionnaire. In an interview with Fox News, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota had this to say in response to her defiant refusal to complete a 2010 census form:
“If we look at American history, between 1942 and 1947, the data that was collected by the Census Bureau was handed over to the FBI and other organizations at the request of President Roosevelt, and that’s how the Japanese were rounded up and put into the internment camps.”
The paranoia of her sentiment is not baseless. If it seems to be a bit of stretch to say that immigrants will be placed in internment camps, look no further than Donald Trump’s plan of banning Muslims and the groundswell of support its received, which illustrates a culture of fear and xenophobia that has characterized America throughout its history. And then there’s the more logical reason for certain immigrants not to participate in the census: they won’t benefit from the census findings.
In an article by Laura Trevelyan for BBC News, Reverend Carlos Soto, who is a member of The National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian leaders, an organization that represents 20,000 churches in 34 states and called for undocumented people to boycott the census had this to say about illegal immigrants and the census:
“I know how afraid the people are, they are hiding, and they believe the police force is looking for them. I believe they shouldn’t be counted until they’ve been legalized. The governors, the leaders of each state want to count them in order to receive money, but that money is going to be used for the other residents that are legal. So why should they be counted?”
This is the perception that the US Census fights, and ultimately fails, to shake during each decennial census.
Race, undoubtedly, is a very sensitive issue for the census as evidenced by the controversy in 2010 over the use of the word “negro” on census questionnaires. Some objected to it and viewed it as counterproductive. Others felt it was an important, innocuous, term by which older generations still closely identify. Whatever the case may be, the US Census unknowingly has played an important role in helping to shape conceptions of race in this country. According to TIME Magazine’s Barbara Kiviat:
“The first Census, in 1790, explicitly asked about only one race: white. Blacks, for the most part, fell into the slave category. Race was about civil status. In the 19th century, concerns about keeping the white race pure led to the addition of the “mulatto” category in 1850 (and “quadroon” and “octoroon” in 1890)… With rising immigration, Chinese and Japanese were added as categories — but not Irish or Italian — underscoring that somehow Asians were more fundamentally different.
In the civil rights era of the 20th century, Census data took on a whole new meaning. The antidiscrimination laws written in the 1960s and the affirmative-action policies that followed relied on Census data to determine if minorities were underrepresented in any number of realms, from home sales to small-business loans. One of the largest leaps in the Census’ racial scheme came in 2000 when, for the first time, respondents were allowed to check more than one race box.”
All of this, the US Census Bureau would say, is besides the point. At the end of the day, they want every single American, legal or otherwise, negro or African American, to be counted so the money, congressional seats and electoral votes can be properly distributed. But perhaps, all of these issues are the point. Can the census realistically and honestly say that their findings are truly accurate? Employees who are not invested in the work they do, respondents who are not interested in completing forms, and those who are simply afraid to: those are not conditions conducive to accuracy.
If the census is inaccurate then does it become irrelevant?
And if it becomes irrelevant then does it become unnecessary?