It was a routine day in completing census enumeration for the U.S. Census in 2010. The census was great work because no one was above me in a supervisory role while I was out on the streets. I really loved the work. And then I came upon two groups of individuals that seemed to disappear after I attempted to complete the census with them.
The first group of four people lived above a business in a community in western Massachusetts. There were three or four apartments surrounding the hallway on the second floor of the building. I entered the apartment after I showed my census credentials to the person who opened the door and invited me in. I would have rather remained at the door to the apartment to complete the census questions, but the person who answered the door insisted that I enter.
Almost immediately, passports bearing the name of a country in South America were placed in front of me and I explained that my work had nothing to do with where the people came from who lived in the apartment. When I declined to take the passports, a kind of low-boil bedlam broke out in the place and the person who seemed in charge made a phone call. I sat down when that person explained that a relative would arrive shortly and help. I did not speak the first language spoken by people in the apartment, but we had enough of an understanding to go on with the questions.
About a half hour later the relative arrived and a conversation took place between all the people. I explained to the newly arrived relative that I had nothing to do with checking passports. I said that I was there to complete the U.S. Census.
A few days later, in a nearby apartment building over another business, occupants answered census questions with no complications. A glitch arose, however, when two tenants were at work and I interviewed them when they returned to their apartment a few days later. They said that they were from a country in Europe, but that made no difference in gathering information for the census enumeration.
What happened over the weeks that followed was more than bizarre and could shed light on the problems that could arise from placing a citizenship question on the 2020 census. People who refuse to answer the census because they fear for their safety and status in the country, or if they are from a group that is in fear of its status in the country, or don’t answer the door, can potentially cause a drop in both Congressional representation and the granting of federal funds. It’s a case of the numbers not adding up.
Those variables considered, the people who worked across from their apartment complex disappeared soon after I approached them to complete the census. I don’t know if the two events were chance occurrences, or a result of approaching these people about the census.
At the end of the formal census enumeration, I went to work for the census in a local census office as part of a group investigation of what were called results that appeared as outlier data. Outlier census data was seen as unreliable. The census enumerator who had potentially unreliable data would be called to explain the data. If the census data remained potentially unreliable after the call, a second census enumerator would go to the location and determine what may have happened with the data.
During the work as the census office, someone called my name as having results from one enumeration that had to be repeated by a second enumerator. I was shocked since I was meticulous in completing census visits and forms. I met with the census supervisor and quickly learned that it was the apartment I had visited where several people wrongly presented their passports to me. The second census enumerator found no people living in this apartment and that immediately set off alarms.
An educated guess is that these people who were probably workers contributing to the local community and economy had been frightened by my visit and did not understand the nature of the census. I had tried to explain the intent of my visit, but the anxiety in the apartment was palpable.
What are some possible conclusions of my work completing the census with the two groups of people described above and what were the potential effects on their lives from their misunderstanding of the census?
Western Massachusetts, the area where I completed the census in 2010, lost a Congressional seat because of the census figures collected that year. Along with the loss of representation is the potential for losing federal funds for government programs amounting to billions of dollars across the country. But the most significant impact was that it was possible that two groups of people left the area because of the misunderstanding about the U.S. Census and the uses of the census. I cannot prove the latter, but it seems to be a reasonable conclusion based on what I observed. Now with the potential for a citizenship question added to the 2020 census, the risk that people will not respond to the census, or worse, is not outside of the realm of possibility. As a further result, Congressional boundaries could be redrawn that benefit those who are politically conservative.
It’s bad business and fits into the anti-democratic juggernaut that has swept this nation for decades with the suppression of voting rights and the decline of votes from those who tend to vote for candidates other than Republicans. The Supreme Court is poised to allow the Commerce Department under Trump and Ross to hasten that result (“The census lawsuit headed straight to the Supreme Court, explained,” Vox, February 15, 2019) by adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census.