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At Work

Census Day In the Lost Decade

By Mike Quinlan
History became the history of demographics, the history of no history.”—George W.S. Trow

We’re gathered on a Friday afternoon in late May, myself and approximately twenty others, in the nicely appointed clubhouse of a large, upscale retirement community, waiting to begin our first day of work as part of the non-response-follow-up (NRFU) portion of the 2010 United States Census. Like many, a layoff has forced me into the job market, where census work—previously the province of students, homemakers, and retirees—is being used as a stopgap by thousands of workers who have been floundering in the decimated economy.

There are still plenty of the usual types working the census though, at least it would seem so looking around at the group standing alongside me today. Our team leader is at least sixty-five, and I’m probably one of only four males in our group under the age of fifty. This will be our first official day—finding and then interviewing households in the area that didn’t return the census form they received in the mail earlier in the year.

Team leader Bill—a slightly manic retired engineer who is working the census for pocket money and to pad his investments—is still deciding exactly how we will proceed today, so there’s nothing to do but wait. The residents begin to file into their clubhouse. One or two of them saunter by at regular intervals on their way to bingo or the pool, curiosity appearing on their faces as they pass. Team leader Bill is still frantically unfolding local maps and furrowing his brow, so the rest of us make small talk.

I speak with Cindy, a medical transcriptionist whose job was outsourced. She says she was fortunate enough to be reassigned as a receptionist but found she couldn’t tolerate the mean-spirited gossip that permeated the place, so she just up and quit. I really can’t blame her, and now I know I’ll have someone I like to talk with during our frequent down times.

James, a former merchant marine, confides that he’s lost some money in the stock market. He’s working the census because he can’t find anything else. He mentions that his car has over 300,000 miles on it and jokes that I should buy it from him. I ask if he’d looked into Cash for Clunkers, but this strikes a false note, and I see a hint of anger cross his face. Seems Cash for Clunkers is one of many peripheral referendums on one’s overall opinion of President Obama, and the fact that I brought it up without obvious derision demonstrates that I’m a viper in the proverbial tea party conservative’s nest. But it can’t be helped and we both move on.

I start talking to Brian—a laid off construction worker in probably his late forties who’s living out of a sleeping bag on his grown daughter’s living room floor, when we both feel something at our feet. One of the resident’s dogs, a tiny Daschund dressed snazzily in matching headband, ankle bands and an athletic tank top, is en route to a professional photo shoot at the clubhouse, something about promoting fitness for the residents, the harried but beaming owner excitedly explains to us as she chases the little guy down, later even pointing out the tripod, the fancy lighting equipment and the props they’ll be using in a room down the hall. I try to imagine how this looks to Brian, who minutes ago told me that his house was just foreclosed on because he can’t find work, but there’s no time—team leader Bill has finally got it together, and we’re ready to get rolling.

I realize I’m somewhat nervous about that initial walk up to my first residence’s doorway and the reactions I might garner from those inside—especially since they’ll immediately see my dead giveaway accoutrements of clipboard, a mostly unnecessary black and white canvas tote bag, and the cheap-looking Census ID badge that hangs around my neck. I dread, to be precise, the phenomenon Sartre termed le regard (“the look”), the specific instant when my arbitrary, newfound identity as a United States Census worker, (an emissary of the federal government no less), will be crystallized in the gaze of the strangers who greet me skeptically at their front doors.

My first respondent is indeed not pleased to see me and greets my scripted introduction with a stilted one of his own: That the original intention and purpose of the decennial U.S. Census was only to count citizens, and therefore he won’t be entertaining questions about race, home ownership, or familial relations. I stifle the “dude, really?” sentiment that’s creeping across my face and politely unfold the entire questionnaire, which is about the length of my arm, to demonstrate visually that in fact there are more questions he is compelled to answer besides how many people live here. But he’s having none of it and dismisses me summarily with the only information he’s ready to part with, some incoherent invective about President Obama thrown in for good measure.

I don’t protest much. Team leader Bill had warned us before we left that although respondents are obliged by federal law to answer all census questions or risk fines or jail time, we of course wouldn’t be enforcing or pressing the issue. Not that I would have anyway. Besides, I know that we workers on the lowest rungs of a service economy can expect the upside down frustrations and convoluted non sequiturs of the wealthy to wind their way down to us, so I take my first respondent’s lack of cooperation in stride.

I learn later that his particular response may have been inspired by controversial Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who publicly encouraged people to respond exactly as he did, should they be so unfortunate as to be approached by the jackbooted army of septuagenarian retirees and the underemployed who are working the 2010 census. At least in part because of the wretched state of the economy, I also learn that this is, in fact, the most traditionally-educated Census workforce on record, which I imagine is also a source of vexation for Bachmann, worried that an elitist Bachelor’s-degree-fueled agenda might sinisterly entrench itself into the whole process.

In cable news parlance, this is a “politicized” time in America. Weird shit has been going down. On February 18th, just a little under two months before the official Census count date of April 1st, Andrew Joseph Stack flies his Piper Dakota airplane into an IRS office complex in Austin Texas, killing a manager there named Vernon Hunter. The year before, in rural Kentucky, census worker Bill Sparkman is found hanging from a tree, the letters “FED” scrawled on his chest, prompting Kentucky authorities to temporarily halt door to door census activities. (It was later determined that Sparkman staged the scene and then committed suicide).

I don’t spend much time thinking about all of that, I just mosey on. It’s at least 100 degrees outside and I have approximately two dozen other addresses to locate and interview in this neighborhood alone—another upscale and gated “55-plus” community of approximately 1500 homes. Team leader Bill instructed us before we left to keep return visits to a minimum, presumably to save on gas and manpower, but also, I think, because some residents are probably concerned about packs of shiftless or otherwise undesirable types traipsing in and out of their fortress-like gates and nosing about. (The guards have been warned beforehand that census workers will be arriving at specified date and time.)

But the other respondents in the neighborhood almost all agree to answer the questionnaire, some are even legitimately excited at participating, and only neglected to return the original census form because they were moving, or because they own more than one home and didn’t know which address to use, (this is the most frequent response I get here), or because they were out of the country, etc. Several invite me in as a reprieve from the heat or kindly offer a bottle of water for the road. So I manage alright, a little sun-burnt and worse for wear, but vindicated at getting almost one hundred percent participation by day’s end.

The next day, after the requisite waiting around period, team leader Bill hands Brian and me a large black binder filled with NRFUs and unfolds another county-wide map to show us the new area he’s selected for us—a semi-notorious part of the county with unpaved roads, tons of no-trespassing signs, and Confederate flags everywhere. Presumably there will also be lots of “vacants,” “demolished/burned out/cannot locates,” and “uninhabitables,”—sites that require no respondent interviews and only entail crossing the addresses off the master list in the binder. Before we leave, team leader Bill pulls me aside for a word: Brian hadn’t fared as well yesterday and many residents didn’t cooperate—he implies it’s because they were put off by Brian’s slightly disheveled appearance—so he’s paring us up for today and reassigning my original area and did I mind? I don’t ask whether he knows about Brian’s present living situation, which I assume he doesn’t since he treats Brian with barely disguised contempt, but no, I don’t mind.

On the drive over I try to picture some isolated but brave little rectangular domiciles, flanked by huge trees and hanging Spanish moss and an endless backdrop of sky, like the cover of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. All glowing and dusk-y and propane tank-y. Nothing too intimidating or weird. No stumbling across meth labs or militia compounds for me today, please.

When we find the designated area, we indeed find a network of inhospitable, unpaved and bumpy roads, but there’s nothing to do but press on, my tiny car bouncing awkwardly along, comically knocking Brian and me to and fro inside. After a few minutes of this, when we’ve gotten deep enough inside the area to see the basic layout, we decide to park the car, divide the NRFUs between us and split up. Most of the properties are seated on individual half acres, so we’ll still be able to spot one another if something goes awry at a particular address. I complete a few at the start, encountering a very helpful resident, (he greets me laughingly with, I can’t believe they make you come all the way back here!), who points out several demolished addresses—this one was hit by a drunken neighbor’s car and subsequently torn down, that one burned to the ground three years ago, etc. Oh, and by the way, he tells me in parting, watch out for so-and-so down the road, he’s our resident neighborhood asshole and he shot at a county surveyor last month.

Americans purchased 14 million guns in 2009, according to the official gun industry figures, and one of them might soon be pointing in my direction. We were given a handful of “Info-Comms,” one-page sheets we were to fill out for houses with vicious dogs or impenetrable fences that precluded counting those inside properly, but the issue of homicidal anti-government maniacs was not specifically addressed. I decide to call team leader Bill from my cell phone, a couple of horses looking out indifferently at me from behind somebody’s fence as I dial. “Go back later in the evening,” he tells me non-sensically, as though everyone knows bullets ricochet off you under the cover of a sunset. But of course I don’t try approaching the property, I just tape a cutesy “sorry I missed you, please call… ” note to the neighborhood asshole’s fence post, then hop Dukes of Hazzard-style into my awaiting, idling car, with Brian laughing heartily inside as we speed away.

The rest of our excursion goes by without incident, and we proceed without any real fanfare for the rest of the day. Once or twice I notice Brian’s eyes lingering over some of the isolated and decimated properties that we hesitatingly approach and attempt to enumerate (the preferred U.S. Census verbiage for count)—tiny one room dwellings with broken windows, obvious Board of Health-invoking levels of mold, likely decades old carpeting torn up and upended with bits of yellow foam padding sprinkled everywhere—with a dejected, or perhaps even conspiratorial look on his face. Maybe he notices me noticing, because later he tells me that he’s half-serious about temporarily squatting in some of them. At least if his daughter decides she’s had enough and kicks him out, which, he intimates, is a likely scenario at this point.

Of course I somewhat selfishly fantasize about saying or doing something here: I want you to take this… , but I don’t do or say much other than “I’m sorry,” or “I know things are so bad right now.” (Nothing like stating the obvious.) Right now I lied, as though I actually believed what he was experiencing was just a temporary aberration, soon to be corrected by an uptick in team leader Bill’s stock portfolio, as though a decade-long onslaught wasn’t already apparent in his beaten-down countenance. But he nods his agreement: “Things” are bad. Right now. Why else were we standing alone together in the middle-of-nowhere, essentially jobless and undeniably exhausted under the sweltering midday summer sun, speaking in reflexive workaday maxims to one another? For my part, whatever idealism I might ascribe to is simply too underdeveloped to do anything with, and basically as meaningless as the unfiltered data our respondents provide by rote in our impromptu front door interviews:

  • Please look at List E on the Information Sheet.
  • Do you own this (house/apartment/mobile home) with a mortgage or loan, own it free and clear; rent it; or occupy it without having to pay rent?
  • Do you or does someone in this household *really* want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages?

In the lost decade—the term economists have begun using to describe the last ten years, where little to no job creation and stagnation of household wealth has been the painful norm—it’s reasonable to assume that personal growth languishes as well. I never find out what happens with Brian anyway. The NRFU portion of the census finishes months ahead of schedule, and our local unit—as well as my ad hoc venture as a United States Census taker—is over two weeks after it begins.

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