A Day in the Life of a Census Taker in Southern California
Like so many things this year, the 2020 Census was news fodder, churned up and spat out. It was, however, something I tried to help out with and something I thought important.
The Census sounded interesting when I applied to be an enumerator in December 2019, envisioning thumbnail sketches of the lives of people in my community, those I drive by countless times throughout the year, stand behind in grocery store lines. I’d visit the nooks and crannies of the San Fernando Valley, my home for over twenty years.
I did not anticipate wearing a mask, the record-setting heat, breathing thick, wildfire air and ash under a corporate casual dress code. I did switch to shorts on day two, but a new menace infested the area, Aedes aegypti a.k.a. yellow fever mosquito or, aptly, ankle-biters. The pesky parasite forced me back into pants and high socks. Talc was helpful for the chafing.
My third day, I get to the front porch of a ranch style San Fernando Valley house under light construction, some exposed beams and wet concrete. I ring the doorbell just as a man ascends a step ladder about two feet away from me on the other side of a slide window. He is screwing a light fixture into the ceiling, wearing jeans with a thick brown leather belt and no shirt. Stringy blond hair cascades down his shoulders.
I tap the window and strap on my federally required mask. He makes no such concession, coming out on the porch, approaching well within six feet.
He answers the initial questions I read off my government-issued iphone. This is the first U.S. Census so equipping enumerators: “remote data capture,” it’s called.
Gregariously backing me down the driveway, he tells me he doesn’t live there but knows how many people do and their names. Given enough attempts and sufficient knowledge, a non-resident can complete the questionnaire for the actual occupants. Such a person is known as a proxy. The phone tells me he qualifies. He gives their names but doesn’t know ages. I’m then to get his information the phone tells me. I enter his name and number and then ask his profession.
“Caveman,” he says.
I laugh but he doesn’t respond like one who has made a successful joke. I hold up my phone with thumbs poised and eyebrows raised (my only form of expression with the mask), indicating I need to type something and his current answer is unacceptable.
“You can say I take care of their horses.”
I type in “handyman” and thank him for his time.
“Couldn’t that Instabook fella knock this out in the time it takes to cook a hog?”
“Probably just a chicken,” I answer, playing along.
“So you working for the government, what you think about that Black Lives Matter horseshit?”
The video training says to disengage now. I’ve completed the interview and should, politely, mention the long list of addresses I need to complete. I stop backing up.
“And they say I’m white privilege too,” he says.
“There are unseen advantages to being…”
“I never had anything handed to me. What you think about Trump? Oh I know. You think he lies but what he lie about?”
“How many people came to his inauguration?”
“Oh, so you have a party and make it sound bigger than it was. That’s a crime?”
“And he paid off Stormy…”
“Listen, I lied to my wife. I had an affair and I lied about it. I was unfaithful. I’m a sinner and I pray forgiveness every day. It’s a sin but it ain’t a crime.”
I concede defeat and thank him for his time.
The Census is a massive endeavor, estimated to cost $15.6 billion, employing 150,000 temporary workers. It directs over a trillion dollars, every year, in federal funding for schools, roads and healthcare.
Trump has had his hands in this census for some time. Initially, it was the citizenship question he wanted inserted into the questionnaire. Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, argued the question’s purpose was to aid enforcement of the Voters Right Act, the same law they eventually succeeded in overturning. Unexpectedly, conservative, Chief Justice Roberts voted with the Supreme Court’s liberals, calling the administration’s blatant lie, “contrived.”
Internal documents later revealed the scheme was part of an anti-immigrant agenda to drive down the count in left-leaning urban areas, further outflanking Democrats as Republicans have over the last decades with schemes such as voter-caging and superior gerrymandering by focusing on local elections.
While effective, the tactic is especially unfortunate for areas that might have a large immigrant population. Those with temporary status or even green cards might be nervous responding to the census due to the Trump administration’s heightened and often illegal enforcement of immigration laws.
The trouble is that the people are still there, using public services, whether they are counted or not.
About a week into the job, I turn on my government iphone and can tell I’ll be spending my day in a condo community: same street, slightly differing numerical addresses but with unit designations. I like doing apartments, air conditioning and no need to drive from house to house. They do all reek of weed, the prescription kind, not the earthy aroma from 1980’s rock concerts. I’m optimistic.
I already completed the census! You’re the fifth one! This is harassment!
Door after door is slammed in my face. I text my supervisor the situation. She’ll look into but “the best line is we’re doing quality control to make sure the info matches.”
The next door is flung open by a squat woman. She immediately accuses me of being with the census.
“Guilty,” I say flashing my census satchel and a smile, as I don the mask like a bandit.
She scolds me for my unknown colleagues’ prior visits, yelling that she has already completed the census online. I tell her I’m here to verify her answers and ask if she has completed the in-person “verification” interview. Shockingly, it works. She admits she hasn’t, so I rush to my questions. By the look on her face her compliance will be strictly malicious.
“Can I get your phone number please?”
“8! 1! 8! 7! 2! 2! 1! 0! 9! 3!” She yells every single number at me.
“Birthday please?” I ask, in the kindest voice I can muster.
“April! Fifth! Nine! Teen! Seventy! Eight!”
And so it goes. I am impressed by her commitment. When we’re done, I give her a heartfelt thank you. She aims to slam the door for final dramatic effect but it’s hollow-core with no real weight, shutting with a soggy slap. She compensates with a sharp click of the deadbolt.
For the rest of the day, I still get plenty of refusals but the quality-control angle is effective. I stress that they’ll be doing me a favor, getting an address off my list, no one will bother them again (a possibly false promise as I have no way of knowing) and I can get it done in a matter of minutes, barely an inconvenience.
I did not anticipate the need for any sort of ruse when I signed on. The largely hostile, apathetic and/or perplexed responses were unexpected. Get the fuck off my property! Is this so I can vote? This is an invasion of privacy! Do I have to answer this? Identity theft! I explain the census is in the Constitution, the main part, before the amendments and response is required by law. It never lands with sufficient gravitas.
Census information is confidential, by law. I have a Spanish/English flyer explaining the same. As far as identity theft schemes go, mocking up a “Census 2020” satchel and matching iphone case to go around asking folks for barely personal information is comical at best. But we live in an era of widespread cynicism.
Caveman is right: for the 2030 census, Mark or Jeff or Bill or Elon will probably gin up a people-counting-algorithm. No doubt they could do a more accurate one right now.
I remember my dad doing the census in 1980. He asked me for a number two pencil. Speaking of my dad, I listen to Conservative radio in case he calls so I know what we’ll be talking about.
The running theme of every Limbaugh and Hannity segment is, “trust me, everyone else is lying to you. They’re out to destroy America but not before taking your guns and religion.” In between rants they hawk home security systems and Lifelock. “Identity theft happens every two seconds.”
But talk radio, QANON conspiracy ramblings rely on our government’s well-earned reputation for chicanery: the Tuskegee experiments, Vietnam, secret bombings of Cambodia and Laos, Watergate, Iran-Contra, CIA killings of Jesuit priests in El Salvador, meanwhile selling drugs in South Central, WMD’s, drone assassinations, corporate bailouts and police brutality.
In early August, the Trump administration truncated the 2020 Census to September 30th, a month sooner than planned. U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh in the Northern District of California issued a temporary restraining order, setting a hearing for September 17th, which was cancelled when the Trump administration refused to produce census documents, reinstating the October 31st end date.
Meanwhile, a half-hearted attempt at counting the massive homeless population in Los Angeles was conducted. We were put into teams and sent to specific intersections based on scouting missions conducted in January, eight months prior.
The locations were mostly vacant, likely due to the change of season. I walked along railroad tracks but knew the homeless were largely congregating under freeway overpasses to escape the sun.
We were not to actually interview the homeless we did find — instead counting tents and immobile mobile homes. The likely result was a massive undercount of the homeless in urban areas and, thus, missing out on critical federal funds perpetuating the vicious cycle.
Days later, via social media, the Census Bureau announced October 5th as the “target date” to conclude the national count. On October 8th, my supervisor texted me, we could claim we were fired due to lack of work on our unemployment insurance applications.