Sunday, May 16, 2010

Census Bureau letters inspired by a late-night phone call

An open letter to the person who called me at 11:45 p.m. to tell me that you don't have time to do a Census interview and you'll do it online instead:

Please note that the "please call between" time on the four "notice of visit" forms I left on your door all said until 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. On the second or third visit, I changed it to 10 p.m. out of generosity, but that was really about as late as I wanted to be doing this kind of work. But don't worry, I wasn't asleep when I answered your call: the ringing of the phone at that late hour and the "blocked call" I saw on my iPhone jolted me out of my well-deserved slumber after a ten-hour work day. 

But I do appreciate that you called back again after midnight when you realized that I really was legitimate. Seriously, I know it's annoying to have to do this kind of thing, especially if it is a second time, but you were taking it out on the wrong person.

An open letter to the people who still didn't bother to contact me for an in-person or by-phone interview even after receiving four or five "notice of visits" at your door: 

I don't know if you think you are outsmarting Uncle Sam or sticking it to the man or whatever, but all you're doing is causing more expense on the part of the Census Bureau as they pay me to keep going to your home, pay other people who might have to follow up, and hold up those who are waiting for your information to finally be compiled, all at a rate of at least $17 per hour. Actually, we appreciate the extra work, so thanks. Really. Not sure if the taxpayers are so appreciative, though, but let's just count it as a jobs program.

An open letter to the guy who started yelling at me about "all this P.C. sh¡t" when we got to the questions about race:

Actually, such questions have been asked since 1790, and they've gotten more inclusive over time, including the right to list more than one race/ethnicity, and to count Spanish in the Hispanic/Latino/Spanish category. And I'm sorry that White gets only one category while Asian gets a whole bunch. That must really suck for you.

An open letter to the woman who got angry at me for interrupting the lessons she was conducting: 

It would have been totally unnecessary for me to bother you had you done any of the following: (a) responded at your convenience to the three "notice of visit" cards I had left at your door; (b) quickly told me a time to come back later that day, like when the lesson was over; or (c) sent in your original Census form. 

An open letter to the various homeowners who constructed housing units on your property without informing the City and County of Honolulu of their existence and/or didn't get them up to code:

What part of "we don't care and we don't share" do you not understand? From the get-go, I told you I could be fined or arrested for revealing any such information to the local government (or any entity), so why did you pretend that the three or so renters living on your property aren't actually there? All you're doing is taking representation away from the state, not to mention Federal funds that are divvied up according to population. 

An open letter to those of Hawaiian descent who have mixed feelings about participating in the US Census:

Though I am not of Hawaiian descent myself, I do feel for you and the conflict you feel as you weigh whether to participate in an accounting by a government you may see as illegally occupying your ancestral land. As one of my Native Hawaiian friends pointed out, you may not see Washington as a legitimate ruler of the Kingdom of Hawaii, but for now they are here and it makes sense to cooperate with the occupier (she said it better than that). From a Korea perspective (vis-à-vis Imperial Japan's four-decade rule of Chōsen Korea), I totally get that. 

And I thank you for not taking it out on me.

An open letter to the people who ran the Census 2010:

This has been a shoddily performed operation. Despite Korea being known for balli-balli quickly done work at the last-minute with impossible deadlines, I have never seen anything as badly put together as this. 

I don't blame anyone in Honolulu, where everyone was just following orders from somewhere else higher up the food chain. Rather, I think this was an institutional problem with few clear culprits. Ten years from now, whether the enumerators are all carrying iPad 5.0s or not, this job will be handled far better if enumerators are given the training and the time to do it right. This year, it could have been handled far better with half the people given twice the time to do the job. I do not understand why this operation had to be thrown together and then completed in just a matter of weeks. Where are you running off to? 

There was no institutional memory as few people from Census 2000 were asked back to work in positions where their skill set and experience would have been useful. We had newly trained crew leaders training barely trained enumerators — the legally blind leading the totally blind. 

Somehow the maps for our district were terribly wrong. Entire housing complexes were counted twice with two different addresses, causing hours and hours of expensive and unnecessary door-knocking that bothered people who had turned in their Census form long ago. In other places, housing units were missed because roads were a little unclear, but not that hard to figure out. In all seriousness, it's as if the mapmakers had been given a month or so to canvass the region looking for and verifying addresses, but waited until three days before it was due to throw together something

I won't even get started on how the address sets for follow-up assignments handed to the enumerators were thrown together with no rhyme or reason, such that one person might have to visit houses in neighborhoods quite far from each other, a fact that was exacerbated by the existence of actual mountain ridges smack in the middle of enumerator districts that had to be driven around. (I should draw a map to show this). 

And in this day of ubiquitous identification theft and financial scams, why send out an army of enumerators without photos of themselves on their Census Bureau badges? If someone had shown up at my door with their name hand-written on a Census Bureau badge anyone with a good printer could produce on their own, I wouldn't have been too trusting either. But that's what you had us all do.

During my life in Seoul, I have grown used to the relative efficiency of most Korean government agencies I encounter, in contrast with two-hour waits at the California Department of Motor Vehicles, full-day waits at the Immigration & Naturalization Service that resulted in no contact and forced a return to start it all again later in the week, and even surly encounters at the Republic of Korea consulate in Los Angeles, but this experience has all but shattered any faith I may have had in the possibility of efficient governance in the US. My only hope is that the unique decennial nature of the Census makes it not work so well compared to other government entities, or else we're all screwed. Terribly, horribly screwed. 

An open letter to the people who turned in their Census Bureau form on time, as requested: 

Thank you. The whole country should give you a hearty "mahalo!" for performing your civic duty promptly and responsibly. Your household saved the Federal government about $60 by doing that at a time when we have rising deficits. True, you didn't give local residents a chance to earn most of that sixty bucks as enumerators, but we had enough work without you.

An open letter to the people who turned in their Census Bureau form on time but for some reason got a visit from us:

My apologies for that. There may have been a snafu on the Mainland causing the Census Bureau to have sent you two forms, or perhaps the form you gave us was somehow illegible or damaged (not necessarily on your end). Nevertheless, thank you for your patience and cooperation in filling it out a second time when I or my fellow enumerators came to your door. 

Mahalo for your time,
Enumerator #51995


  1. I'm not sure why you are so excited about being a part-time enumerator; maybe it's the cool badge. But I can't get too worked up about the fact that no one sent me a census form. The form may be short, but the reasons for the questions on race, income, and other factors escape me, unless I want to be another participant in the popular fantasy that government is a force for good and that making government bigger and more expensive makes life better for everyone.
    If an official representative wants to know how many people live in my house, they may have a legitimate reason for asking that question. But I see no legitimate reason for knowing any other background information (race, education, income, personal property, etc.) using the fiction of the government's right to know.

  2. Sorry for not answering this sooner.

    It's not the cool badge. I wanted to work this job because of a number of reasons. First, I use Census data a lot in my own academic and professional work, and I thought it would be interesting to witness the "sausage-making process" of how it gets put together.

    Second, this is one of those things that was always drilled into me as an important part of our Constitution-based representative democracy, something we've been doing since 1790. So there was a strong element of, hey, I can do my civic duty with this.

    Third, I wanted to get out and do a job that puts me out there, like my other fantasy jobs (police officer, teacher, barista, etc.) that I'd like to do for six months or a year.

    Anyway, I think you do have some of the information on the Census wrong. For starters, no one asks your income. And the race question is something that's been asked since 1790; like it or not, we tend to classify people — socially as well as officially — according to race (and ethnicity).

    The things they ask are name, sex, date of birth, race/ethnicity, Hispanic or Spanish origin, whether the home you live in is rented, owned out right, owned with a loan, etc., and that's it.

    The US Census Bureau decided to go with a short form this time and do the really long form (detailed information gathered for statistical purposes and research) by way of the American Citizen Survey. And that's a whole different animal.


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