Last Wednesday there took place a national ritual as venerable and significant as our national elections. –April 1 was the official National Census Day, the reference date for the 2020 national census, an event mandated by the U.S. Constitution to take place every ten years. It would be significant enough if only because the census determines the number of Congressional representatives each state has and also where most of the federal grant money goes.
But the census provides us with a great deal more. It is in a sense a national photograph, a once-every-ten-year portrait of America and a sense of where it is going. Its mountain of data, when sifted down, provides us with a fact-based portrait of the country – who lives here? Where do they live? And perhaps most important, how do they live?
Still few people were unaware of National Census Day, or regarded it only as a minor annoyance. Most people received the so-called “short forms” In the past these forms were filled out by hand and returned to the government by post. This year, for the first time, residents have the option of responding to the short forms online or by phone. But a couple of situations still require a more hands-on approach. If a census form is nor returned, someone must go to the home of that person and retrieve it. Also, as I said, most census forms are what are known as “short forms,” relatively simple forms that require only a few minutes to fill out. But approximately one out of every ten forms is what is known as a “long form,” a much longer and detailed sheet of questions – some of which gets quite personal and must be filled out in the presence of a census taker.
Thirty years ago I was a census taker in my then home town of Brewster. A small group of my neighbors and townspeople signed up with me, mostly retired folk, housewives, and unemployed. We were each assigned a chunk of the town to survey, using copies of the assessor’s maps.
I applied to be a census taker in part for the chance to earn a little extra money, and also as a way to get to know my town a little better. But I was also drawn by what I regarded as the sanctity of the census. During the orientation sessions, this was strongly impressed upon us. There was the threat of a 10-year federal jail sentence for revealing any private information gathered in the census. This firewall of privacy extended to the government itself. During World War II the War Department demanded to know the identity and location of Japanese-American citizens. The Census bureau refused, and ultimately the Supreme Court decided in favor if the Census Bureau. That sanctity of census information was again tested this year by the Trunp administration’s ill-conceived and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to add a question about the respondent’s citizenship status.
Although most of the work was straightforward and unexciting, there were also many examples of the unexpected, some examples of which I’ll tell you about next week.