Counting Heads

For the past month or so I've been working as an enumerator for the U.S. Census Bureau. It's my first taste of government employment, and I must say I've been enjoying the experience thoroughly—and not just because of the badly needed paydays. For reasons of confidentiality I can't write about the job in any great personal detail without risking jail time (up to five years) or a huge fine (up to $250k). But the experience has given me a bit of insider understanding of why the census does what it does, and I'm at liberty to discuss that.

The census has attracted a fair amount of criticism this go-around, particularly from the tea party crowd and some of its outspoken sympathizers in Congress and on cable TV. So much so, in fact, that Lee Atwater acolyte Karl Rove did a TV spot for the bureau in attempt to help allay the suspicions of reluctant right-wing responders.

Although I'm skeptical of the persuasive powers of a guy like Rove, there are some reasonable causes for concern behind the paranoid conspiracy theories directed at the Census Bureau's operations that are important to address. For example, during World War II in the 1940s census data was used to help relocate Japanese Americans to internment camps. And because the census aims to count not just citizens but every person who lives stateside for the majority of the year, some illegal immigrants will undoubtedly wonder whether the next government worker to come knocking at their door will be an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) official. (Short answer: he won't be.)

The Texan and libertarian Republican Ron Paul, whose 2008 presidential bid helped spawn the tea party movement, questioned the constitutionality of the census questionnaire in a message to constituents last month. "Article I, section 2 of the Constitution calls for an enumeration of citizens every ten years, for the purpose of apportioning congressional seats among the various states," he noted (correctly) before arguing, "In other words, the census should be nothing more than a headcount. It was never intended to serve as a vehicle for gathering personal information on citizens."

Census Bureau enumerators are primarily after five pieces of personal information from everyone we contact: name, sex, age, whether or not a person is of Hispanic origin, and race. There are other questions that could be considered intrusive—such as one that asks whether a residence is owned outright, mortgaged, or rented—but at least in the operations I've been a part of, the crew leaders have repeatedly stressed that the information is confidential and used only for statistical purposes. The truly important thing is counting as many people as possible (even if they don't respond to every last question), and counting them only once.

Respondents' answers are confidential for 72 years and then released for the sake of historical research. It is true that the FBI obtained records in the '40s, under the Second War Powers Act of 1942, for more nefarious purposes. In 1980, however, courts ruled that neither the FBI nor any other entity can have access to census data.

As Ron Paul noted in his letter, a decennial (once every 10 years) census is constitutionally mandated to determine Congressional representation. This will be a big concern for Iowa this year because the state will most likely lose one of its five Congressional seats. (Minnesota faces a similar threat, which has quieted Republican U.S. Representative and tea party star Michele Bachmann's theatrical refusals to fill out a questionnaire—it's her district that's at risk of disappearing.)

The population count has some implications for Ames, too. "Ames is a no-growth city," our supervisor likes to say when he drops in during meetings. According to his data, if we fail to count at least 50,000 heads the city will lose $1200 per person per year in government funds. That would be a pretty substantial blow, but I have my suspicions that his words are more a motivator than anything else. After the 2000 Census, Ames' population stood at 50,731, and a 2008 estimate put it at 56,510. I can see how such a relatively small increase could be interpreted as "no-growth" compared to a place such as my hometown of Ankeny, which gained 15,000 residents in the same period. Still, I suspect Ames has more than 50,000 people lurking about now.

One final thought: The 2010 Census has also faced some criticism about its expense to taxpayers. On the upside, the job pays generously ($11.75 an hour in Ames) and has employed a lot of people who need the money to help them through the down economy. On the other hand, without getting into the details, there is a considerable amount of inefficiency in the enumeration process, of which every one of us is aware. But let's not forget, this is the government. It reminds me of a quote from Harry Truman: "Whenever you have an efficient government you have a dictatorship."

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