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  • Writer's pictureR Scott Okamoto

My Census Story- Why I Hate Most of the World, Part 2

One of the reasons I kept working as a census enumerator, outside of the hopes of a new guitar, was the fact that the count for each state is vitally important for funding, political representation, and infrastructure. The number of representatives in congress comes from the census. In our training they told us to talk about schools and retirement homes when people asked, but those are hardly the most awe-inspiring components of the census. In truth, none of the census outcomes impress crazy or stupid people. They have their own shit to deal with.

But I trudged on, one door at a time, reminding myself that I was working for the greater good.

After a few days of this work, I felt like I had a handle on everything. I had experienced pretty much every kind of respondent possible. Angry people, annoyed people, suspicious people, friendly people, stoned people, clueless people, fearful people. I learned that it is really easy to tell if people aren’t telling the truth. A simple question: On April first of this year, how many people, including yourself, were living or staying at this address?

Most people answer quickly without any thought. Four. One. Two. Five. But some people think about it and look guilty for a brief moment. “Um…four…no, three. Three. Yeah, three.” Some answer this question with a question: “So, where is this information going?” or “Um, what’s the census, again?” One Asian guy in a large house came to the window, refusing to open the door. When I asked how many people lived in the house, he paused for a long time. Like 5 seconds. “Um…uh…just…um…me.” Right.

In our script, we mention that all information is confidential, and I even reassured the Spanish speakers that no information was shared with any other branch of government. This rarely made anyone feel better about the whole thing because that is exactly what the government would say while trying to get information to entrap someone.

By the end of that first week, I started to notice that almost all my cases were what I eventually described as “dead cases.” These cases had anywhere from one to fifteen case notes from numerous enumerators who had no luck or were threatened with death and everything in between. “Refusals” is the term the Census uses for these people. Seems like a stronger word should be used to describe physical threats, but ok.

At the end of the week I had a case list filled with crazies. Case notes described angry people who had refused to do the survey. One house had a note that said residents just yelled through their living room window that they hated the census or something like that. I was in the neighborhood and just had to see this. I had learned to just skip a house like this, but I saw a postmates delivery guy walking up the driveway and followed him. He was delivering groceries and a six pack of beer. I stood behind him as he knocked on the door. We chatted a bit while we waited. Sure enough, a cranky voice behind the door shouted, “who’s there?!” The guy said he needed a proof of age for the beer. An old woman refused, and the guy said he couldn’t leave the order without the proof of age. A young woman emerged and told her grandma to stay inside, away from the strangers. She argued with the delivery guy for a minute and then relented, saying she would go get her ID. She looked at me with my badge and Census bag and said, “we don’t subscribe to the census. Please leave.” The delivery guy started laughing. “Some people are just fucking stupid,” he laughed. This allowed me to play “good cop,” as the young woman had clearly heard him. I said, loudly, that I understood why people don’t trust the federal government. I looked at the young woman and asked her if she understood what the census was. She softened a bit and said she did not. I explained it to her, and she said, “oh.” She still wouldn’t let me interview her, but she said she would do it online. Human development can be slow and painful. And mildly entertaining.

To this day, I sometimes wonder what must have happened to make some people think the Census is some hostile government plot to invade one’s privacy or create a surveillance state. I mean, we have cell phones and social media for all that.

Along with the number of “dead cases” I was getting by the second week, the system started to glitch. One day, I got 175 cases assigned to me, even though I had only signed up to work five hours. On the text thread, our CFS told us the computers were going haywire, and many enumerators had gotten zero cases, while others got hundreds. I was lucky to be one of the latter. That meant, I could pick my way through my list to find the “virgin” cases where no one had visited and avoid the messy ones with dozens of case notes describing all manner of human folly.

Of course a cry went up on the text thread. What were census workers supposed to do with no work? Everyone was chasing those bonuses, and some were only able to work a few hours each day. Missing even one day because of the glitch cost a lot of people any shot at those bonuses. Our supervisor told people to contact the main regional office about the hours. The regional office told them to ask their supervisors. Yeah. It was like that.

So, despite my chaotic list that actually had addresses on it as far away as Huntington Beach, a solid 50 miles away, I managed to close a good number of cases each day. By my count, I was completing double the minimum for the bonuses.

Despite still not sleeping well and having constant nightmares of knocking on evil, angry doors and looking for hidden houses, I was in the zone. I had my enumerator persona down cold. I was friendly and conversational, yet efficient with everyone’s time.

And I was getting a little unhinged in my thoughts. I had come up with the perfect thing to say to the crazies, though I would never actually say it.

It went like this (in my head):

Respondent: I'm not giving my name to the government because...

Me: Motherfucker! They already have your name. They have your pictures. They know who you are. You pay fucking taxes. You have a driver’s license. You probably have a US passport. But cool. You don't want to be counted for the US Census. Fine! For the next 10 goddamn years, whenever you see a graphic that says there are 375 million people in the United States, you can rest assured that you are not counted as one of them. Congratulations. Have a nice fucking day. Asshole.

Yes, the job was getting to me in ways I didn’t even realize. Manic thoughts of cathartic rage, notwithstanding. I noticed my jaw hurt each morning due to grinding my teeth. I had headaches all the time. I wondered what it would be like to mauled by a pit bull. The one happy place I went to was thinking of the guitar I was going to buy with my bonus money. It was a lovely image at the end of a thin mental string holding me within the realm of sanity.

I kept a working journal on Facebook to help me sort out my thoughts. This was one of the last entries for the week:

“We live in a cross-section of middle class and lower-income areas. A lot of the houses I've visited are hidden in the back of dirt lots, and the people who live there range from super friendly to sociopathic loners who want to be left alone. About half of the Mexican American families only speak Spanish, and I've been able to have great conversations with them. For the Spanish-speaking poor in my neighborhood, I totally understand that these are scary times. Many people are visibly fearful when someone who says he works for the federal government comes to their house. I've been able to assure them that the census shares no info with other branches of the government and that counting them will only help us fight against the tyranny of the republicans who would only want them out of the country. The amount of courage and faith in the better parts of government that these people show should shame the middle class privacy mongers who think the census is out to get them. Fuck ICE. Fuck Trump. Fuck republicans who enable all this shit.”

At the end of the second week, our CFS told us that Pasadena was basically completed. In the two weeks since I started, I had worked almost every day. Each day at least one person informed the text thread that they were quitting. My CFS started a new thread and told us we were the elite enumerators who were being sent to other areas of Los Angeles county. Several people declined the offer, saying they didn’t feel safe going outside of Pasadena. I wondered what parts of Pasadena they had worked to feel such safety, but I was fine with going. So, for two days, I drove south to a neighborhood just north of downtown. I used my Spanish in most of the addresses and completed more than 2 cases per hour on average.

It was a dangerous area, apparently. One woman opened her door and immediately asked if I was working alone. She told me not to stay out past dark.

By Friday, I was just a few hours short of the 25 hours I needed to work that week, and I stayed in the field finishing my case load until I had the 25. Something told me the computers weren’t going to give me cases the next day because several workers each day complained that they had gotten zero cases assigned to them. And I was right. Saturday morning, I checked my phone to find the message: “No case work today due to lack of available work.” If I hadn’t stayed out those extra hours, I wouldn’t have gotten the 25 hours in.

I had a nice Saturday off.

Until that night.

My CFS texted me that I was one of the elite enumerators, and I was being offered a travel job.

Big money.

In Bakersfield.

To be continued...

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