OPINION: Will We All Count in the 2020 Census? An Inside View

by Steven Beck

Filling out yet another Notice of Visit after knocking on an apartment door, from the corner of my eye I caught sight of a huge form hurtling toward me.  

My safety training as a Census Enumerator said to beware of dogs, but thankfully this massive husky was wriggling with delight at finding a new person to befriend. 

“I’m with the Census,” I told her apologetic master, also making note of his apartment should I need to interview him as a proxy for a neighbor. Then, after slipping the “NOV” under the door I was off to the next door, building, or street listed on my digital case list.

Briefly I’d been part of the army of field interviewers, supervisors, techies and agency pros tasked with counting everyone living in America, as has been done every ten years since 1790.  

This vital data becomes the basis of decisions about government funding and representation, from the U.S. House of Representatives down to the local level. That data and its privacy I am sworn to protect to my grave, under penalty of up to five years in the clink.  

But public information and free discussion about this vital democratic process aren’t prohibited, and I also took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution. If a hurried census report is issued at year’s end which undercounts disadvantaged communities, those inequalities will be baked in through 2030 and beyond.

When I applied in August, 2019, I thought that helping the Census was both a civic duty and a short gig for a retiree like myself with some time on his hands. Then came COVID-19. Fingerprinting and approval to work was postponed until June, orientation and training until July, and field work until last month. Many potential recruits my age (65-plus and therefore considered vulnerable to COVID-19) were opting out, but I chose to give it a try while exercising every precaution. Masks and sanitizer have been provided, along with copious warnings about using them and maintaining social distance. Except for one orientation session, training has all been on-line or via group chats. 

But any massive undertaking using new technology inevitably has its flaws. First, the training module wouldn’t download to my Safari browser. Then I installed Chrome and began working through the training module — until it disappeared from my portal page. Many calls later, a tech from the Census Decennial Service Center (with a Louisiana number, not from tech-savvy Seattle) unearthed it in a hidden archive. Finally able to finish my training, tests, and a telephone “capstone” review session, I could hit the streets as a newly-minted enumerator.

The Census Bureau-issued iPhone and its apps are indeed technical marvels, able to transmit field data from anywhere, input data and time records, and assign cases instantly or alert me to hazardous locations. And, despite the ever-present threat of infection, I felt safe.  

Door-to-door, you see our real city in the shadows of our gleaming new towers, where the working people who keep Seattle going struggle to keep going themselves in the face of gentrification, economic recession, and pandemic.

I won’t soon forget the faces of those I met, from immigrant moms and their curious toddlers peeking from behind skirts or saris to teens anxious about who-knows-what this coming school year yet often caring for relatives. I met tech kids crammed into new “a-pod-ments” or aging studios, hoping their new gig would be better than their last; old Somali men gathered at their halal grocery who granted me a shady spot to eat my sandwich; roommates packing up a house to be torn down and the hard-hats building a new one (and gracious enough to let a stranger use their Honey Bucket.)

If those parts of Seattle aren’t counted accurately, they won’t count for funding or representation. Census Director Steven Dillingham said in an Aug. 3 press release that “we will end field data collection September 30,” in a rush to finish by year’s end despite the pandemic. But shouldn’t a process intended to take a demographic “snapshot” of America on April 1, but delayed until August, be extended another four months to make up for that lost time? There are also no signs of a new media blitz to urge participation, although many community groups and churches do so.

Census top brass also seem in a rush to shed staff they’d only just finished screening and training. Unauthorized overtime is grounds for instant termination, we were repeatedly told, but they’ll show you the door for working too few hours as well. Even forgetting to enter time reports the same day became grounds for dismissal. And with no distinction made between drivers and those dependent on transit, like myself, they soon had no more accessible cases for me to interview. No alternatives, such as phone work or teaming up with a driver, were considered.

I cannot testify as to the motivations of political appointees atop the Commerce Department or Census Bureau, but their approach deserves close attention from the voters and our representatives, as is happening with other respected agencies like the CDC and Postal Service. 

I’ve come to admire the dedicated professionals at the Census Bureau; let’s demand that they be allowed the staff, resources and time they need to complete their work, as called for in our Constitution. And if either you or your neighbors haven’t been counted yet, please visit 2020Census.gov or call 844-440-2020.

For the latest on last-ditch legal and community outreach efforts to count everyone, there’s an excellent Sept. 8 article by David Gutman in the Seattle Times.              

Steven Beck, 71, was an Urban Planner for the City of New York, during which time he also served as a union editor and grievance rep for Technical Guild Local 375, AFSCME. Following retirement, he has worked part-time as a teacher of English as a Second Language in New York, Florida, and here in Seattle, where he’s been active in Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity (OWLS).

Featured image attributed to Tony Webster (under a Creative Commons 2.0 license).