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Census Taker--1980 Census...

Another in a series on work called THE REAL WORLD

By Russell D. Hoffman. Copyright (c) 1996 by Russell D. Hoffman.

If you're not too busy at the turn of the decade, and you're a United States Citizen, do yourself a favor. Help take the census. Oh, the people you'll meet!

There are two forms in the U.S. census. Most people get the short form. Everybody else gets the long form.

No matter which form you get, a lot of people don't like to return the forms. This is really a shame. The United States Census is an important marker upon which the spending of billions, if not trillions of dollars each year is based.

This single event is used to determine not just representation in Congress, which is its most important function, but thousands of other more mundane things. Ultimately, it is used to decide how much money gets dispersed to each community from federal, state, and local governments. So it's very important, on a local basis, to get counted. If you and your neighbors all try to pretend you don't exist, by not returning the forms or not answering the questions correctly, you all loose out in a very real sense. Dollars and cents.

The Federal Government hires tens of thousands of local residents to comb the entire community and find, ideally, everybody. Every known address is required to be accounted for. Even every unknown address is required to be accounted for, but some people feel they don't make a solid enough effort at that and there have been lawsuits against the census over undocumented residents.

Every known address receives either a short form or a long form, which is decided randomly, or at least psuedo-randomly by a big computer, presumably in Washington D.C..

Once the computer has picked which form that household has to fill out, there's no changing it. Of course, even the long form doesn't really take that long to fill out, I think we were expected to be able to do it in about 12 minutes. The short form was something like 4 minutes.

But it's too much work...

I recall most of the forms we had to try to get filled out were long forms. Twelve minutes every ten years for one member of the household was just such an imposition!

A few months after all the forms were all mailed out, the residences that had not been accounted for had to be physically canvassed. That was our job. We were paid substantially more for getting a long form filled out than a short form, but we each got a few square blocks in one of Connecticut's largest cities and all the forms from that area were supposed to be accounted for one way or another.

We had to take an oath. An oath to faithfully gather the information, and to never divulge the information we gathered, not even to another Government agency. (Except by order of a court, I guess, which as best I can recall learning, has never happened in the history of the census.)

It always starts this way...

It would start with a knock on the door. "Hi, I'm from the Census Bureau. We haven't recieved a form from this household. I need to know the names and ages of everybody who was residing at this household on..." and give the nationwide date, May 1st I think it was.

Thus we would start to state our business, and ask the person that answers the door if they would take the time to fill out the form with us right now. We would get a hard time sometimes, and of course everybody wanted to switch to the short form, but hardly anybody flat-out refused. After all, there was that softly worded comment about how filling this thing out is required by law, and someone else will come back if they refuse to give me the information.

"You don't have to fill it out with me, but I can't leave the form. If you don't find and return the original form within about ten days, someone else will come back to try to have the form filled out with them."

Who would you rather give the information to? Some jerk who obviously just needed a summer job one year, or "them"--the other people from the government who will come back later?

It was subtle.

It was effective.

And, someone would come back, you knew that. First, your manager. After that, I don't know what would really happen, but someone would be back after me, that was for sure.

Some people actually had reasonable reasons not to want to fill out the form with you, so you really had no right to be forceful about it (and you were told not to be).

Perhaps you were just too close a neighbor, for instance, and they felt embarassed about something. Or perhaps, say, you're a male census taker and the person just doesn't want to tell you that he and his wife both work and their three teenage daughters stay home alone. Wouldn't you hesitate to disclose that to a total stranger?

But usually, the people don't really mind. They just didn't get around to filling out the form, and they're perfectly happy to do it with you.

And then, it gets really fun.

Did you know?...

Did you know that people love to talk about themselves? Of course you did! And it's wonderful, because nothing says you can't be friendly and ask them what it's like to do their job. The best response you can give to someone who tells you what they do for a living is to put down your #2 pencil and say "That sounds interesting. What's it like?"

You're paid by the form, not the hour. So 12 minutes can stretch to an hour if you're both having fun. "Would you like another cup of coffee?"

When you do the census, you meet a lot of people. Different people, different from you. You go into all kinds of neighborhoods. All kinds of people don't return the forms! And this is good for you. You learn what you suspected all along: People are all just people.

I know, for example, which race of people living in an inner city in Connecticut in 1980 (race as defined in the census form, to be exact) prefers DURKEE'S LOUISIANA RED HOT SAUCE over TABASCO. Just about every kitchen had salt, pepper, formica, and Durkee's Red Hot... It made me want to "accidentally" show up at lunchtime or dinnertime!

The long form requires you to specify job titles and a bunch of other stuff which I can't remember (this was 16 years ago).

I remember job titles was in it, because at one place I visited, I had to ask the manager which apartment was which. When I was leaving, he asked me what the resident had said was her occupation.

I laughed and said it would be a federal offense to tell him.

"Cause what she really is, is a prostitute" he tells me. I shrug. "We have to write down what they say" I say, and get in my car.

Dog's are our #1 concern

Even in the inner part of one of the country's most dangerous cities, the most dangerous thing we normally faced was dogs. I got nipped by this tiny little rat of a dog. "Oh, Pooch! Bad dog! Go inside!" says the lady.

"You what?" says my boss when I tell her about it three days later. "Why didn't you tell me right away?" I just didn't think that little dog had rabies, I guess. He was just a mean little punk of a dog that hated everybody that came up the steps. One of those yelping little jumpy things with a head the size of a tangerine. A tangerine with sharp little teeth that cut right through trousers.

If you enjoyed this story, please check out these others:

(Highlighted entries are currently online. The rest I'm writing as I get time.)

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Mail to: rhoffman@animatedsoftware.com
First placed online August 2nd, 1996.
Last modified March 27th, 1997.
Webwiz: Russell D. Hoffman
Copyright (c) Russell D. Hoffman