by Constance Daley
American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
June 2, 2009
THE CENSUS AND CONSENSUS OF OPINION
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- The 1990 Decennial Census was an eye opener for me; it was not just counting heads for an accurate picture of population growth or decline in the previous 10 years. I learned it was far more than that. We had just moved to Troy, Ohio - a small town north of Dayton, south of Toledo - and I didn't know anyone.
I was filling out change-of-address cards at the Post Office when I saw a sign announcing employment at the Census Bureau. Well, that was providential: What better way to meet people than going door-to-door knowing the resident has to, by law, talk with you?
The year 1990 was the first time the count was going to be by mail rather than by personal interview, so my going door-to-door was not quite listed in my job description. Actually, before the mail could go out, we had to know who was out there. A census taker's responsibility was to find dwelling places. Once found, the address would be placed on a line-drawn map with street number or RFD (rural free delivery) number so that the data could be keyed into a mailing label program and sent out on the specified date to "RESIDENT" at that address.
Mapping took quite a few turns onto dirt roads where possible dwellings not seen from the main road could uncover housing that was created by converting a garage into a rental property. As the day's work progressed the surveyor drawing the maps would start counting mailboxes and doorbells to verify the count.
The task was completed, the maps turned in, the forms addressed and mailed from the Dayton Post Office. We relaxed. We felt justified after a job well done.
The next morning a few of us brought in doughnuts and some Danish for us all to enjoy with our morning coffee. We were stopped mid-smile, mid-bite, mid-sip when we heard our supervisor, Tom, pale-faced and almost stuttering, say: "We have to go to the Post Office. It's a madhouse." We jumped up and followed him out the door, down the stairs and into the street. The Post Office was two blocks away - we ran all the way. There were about eight of us aware that there was an emergency afoot but no clue as to what it would be.
We saw 12 huge mailbags; let me emphasize "huge" mailbags. The postmaster was red-faced and furious as he said "and there are eight more on the loading dock."
We had followed the instructions to the letter in sending forms to residents all over Montgomery County and beyond; didn't anyone consider they would all come back to but one address - ours?
The bags were loaded into a pickup truck and hauled back to our office ... in from the street, through the doors, up the stairs, pushed into the office doors and then just plunked down in the entryway. Tom said the person keying them in would open them first and then we would systematically pick them up from there to review and decide if any might indicate non-compliance. You see, there was a plan. But, we discovered many forms should have been mailed to Santa Fe. We had to re-mail them unopened. Somewhere in this vast nation, Post Office problems were mounting as the forms criss-crossed the United States all on the same day.
Those respondents who were considered non-compliant varied from those who didn't give their ethnic origin or something similar. When I called I could understand why. One young woman honestly didn't know what it meant. I gingerly broached the subject with broad questions: "What is your nationality?" "American," she answered. "Yes, but where was your family from?" "Kentucky," she replied. I pried further to get a sampling of her relative's names and then the color of her hair and eyes. With confidence I filled in "Irish." It would have been a waste of taxpayer's money to send someone to the door with a firm voice about compliance just to have a better picture of that household's ethnic origin.
Another non-compliant response would finally yield information that the mother and father of the two children were not married. Census forms would then carry the legend: Persons Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters, or POSSLQ. It worked for us.
The first argument we were trained to use in stimulating compliance was because it's important to have records of family history, genealogy, children interested in their heritage, etc. almost didn't work with one woman. I soon learned she was Native American. She responded confidently: "We have all that. We keep our own history and have it going back 400 years." Other persuasive arguments followed but she couldn't be persuaded. I tried using city services and snowplows, power outages and school buses - all based on population.
Finally, I used a hypothetical example: "Suppose you live on the same street as 17 other Native American families and none of these agrees to be counted, although you drive on the roads and walk on the sidewalks.
There is one other family on the street, not Native American. Your street may be full of potholes and cracked pavement but when the Department of Public Works gets a call on this need for road repair and says "we'll be there tomorrow," and then looks at the record, they will see there is only one family on the street. They won't fire up their utility vehicles for one family. That street will go to the end of the list. How could he know there were 17 other families? Nobody ever counted them. Maybe this never happened, Ma'am, maybe it never will.
But it could." She complied, and when I hung up the telephone with a smile on my face, the other census workers applauded. I felt victorious!
The 2010 Census is underway now; they are filling employment slots, training staff and compiling data. There is a difference this time. Instead of a short form going to most and a long form going to one in 40, the short form, compiled of 10 questions taking 10 minutes to complete, will go to every home and then a separate survey, "American Community Survey," will be sent to one in 40 households. Separate from the census, it is also mandatory.
There seems to be a great deal of misunderstanding about this survey as the details leak out in the press, on the Internet, and on television. For example, you'll be asked what hour and minute you leave for work in the morning. I don't find that intrusive. If it helps decide the need for and the best time for public transportation to make the rounds, then good!
Services are being provided, tax dollars at work, and the data collected tells where services are needed. The statistics are available to us all so that we can make informed decisions.
Many of us appear to have a built-in alarm that raises our suspicions. One cable news analyst suggested that when they know the hour and the minute he leaves for work in the morning, they'd slip in the back door and rob him. It might happen that Mrs. Worrywart down the street or across town overhears that tidbit of humor and she won't want to comply with the mandatory American Community Survey - designed for her own good.
Oh, bad choice of words; too often in my life I've had to take something "for my own good," and I don't always like it. But this time, I'm making an exception.