Friday, July 23, 2010

Why the Census Sucks

I wrote a blog entry for Vice yesterday about working for the Census in the same area of Brooklyn where two managers notoriously falsified over 4,000 people’s personal information in order to meet their deadline, and I thought I’d add a few points that I couldn’t fit in that limited space:

1. Obviously, if you’re going to have a representative democracy that awards seats in Congress based on population, you need to count the people who live in your democracy. Equally obviously, this is impossible. The US could probably count all the voters in the country more or less accurately, but the Census tries to count everyone from newborn infants to illegal immigrants in 50 states and thousands of large towns and cities. Thanks to pockets of people who want to hide from the government for various reasons, urban areas are probably always going to be undercounted, and that’s far from the only problem. People could lie on their Census forms without anyone catching them, Census Enumerators and low-level managers can lie as long as they’re smart about it, an office clerk could hit the wrong key and misenter some data…it’s simply impossibly improbable that there the number the Census comes out with is right. The only reason the Census exists is so the government can claim that it made a good faith effort to count everyone. The managers who falsified data aren’t in trouble because they screwed up the count; they’re in trouble because they undermine the fictitious notion of an “accurate” Census.

2. But just because the Census is doomed doesn’t mean it can’t do a better job than it does. For starters, they could set up a website where you can send your information to the government electronically—in fact, it’s ridiculous that they didn’t do it this time around. They could mail everyone the standard Census form along with a user ID and password to log into a secure site where they could fill out the form without having to go to a mailbox, and there’s no way the response rate wouldn’t rise. (Can you imagine the anti-government, gun-toting types’ reaction to a website where the government asked you personal information?)

3. Another thing the Census needs to fix is the system they use to train Enumerators. When I trained in Brooklyn, I received exactly the same materials and instructions as Enumerators in Cowtip, Montana, which is insane. Enumerators in cities have to deal with a much different set of problems than the people in smaller towns—for instance, we had to try to get into buildings where the buzzers were broken or no one would let us in. I personally had to continually correct the forms I was given because the listed number of units in a building had no relation to reality. And the requirement that we visit boarded-up or burned out units three times before asking the winos sitting on their stoops if the building was vacant was ignored by everyone because it made no sense to begin with. Privatizing the Census makes no sense for a lot of reasons, but a private company wouldn’t make the mistake of treaties large cities and small towns exactly the same.

4. Despite all this, I recommend a Census job to anyone lucky enough to be unemployed in 2020. It pays well, and there’s a joy in working an insignificant job in a large, poorly managed organization. Or as the late Harvey Pekar once said, “I gotta good gig, man. It’s steady an’ I can fuck off a lot. I’d recommend that every young man look inta th’ possibility of getting a flunky government job.”

1 comment:

  1. I worked as a CLA and a CL in the Census. Today was my last day - just finished up the NRFU RES.

    1. Working in the city is much different than the country.

    2. Nepotism is highly prevalent in the census.

    3. We 'city workers' were often sent out to the country to fix the 'country workers' mistakes. Typically, homes were marked as vacant/deletes and we found people living there.

    4. My team typically fired 75% of the new recruits, because they were too dumb to read a script and record the answers properly.