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First Person

We All Need to Come to Our Census

May 07, 2000|ELLEN ALPERSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I never thought I would accept a job that required an oath of loyalty. But in March, I swore to be both loyal and silent.

After passing a test and completing piles of paperwork, I became a census enumerator by raising my right hand and promising to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies (please don't make me enumerate members of the militia in rural Montana). Then I promised never to disclose any information I gleaned on behalf of the Bureau of Census (no tattling on the neighbor who thinks that hubcaps are yard art and that 2 a.m. is when you practice the cymbals).

Becoming a part-time census enumerator was not a career move.

My motives were simple, and craven: I thought it might be interesting to see how well the federal government mobilizes for a countrywide effort to invade people's privacy; to see how people respond to the front-line workers who want to know how many bathrooms they have; to see if I could explain why the Feds consider "Pacific Islander" a race but not "Hispanic/Latino"; and I thought I might get a story out of it, to enhance my $14-per-hour government wage.

So far, after 16 paid hours on the job as a Census 2000 enumerator, this is what I have learned:

* The screening test is easy if you are able to translate the governmentese. (Despite embarrassingly deficient math skills, I scored 100%.)

* The Feds are to paper as Bill Gates is to silicon chips--otherwise unburdened by either personality or opinion, the proctor at the screening test explained the hefty reliance on forms by intoning repeatedly, "Remember, this is the government."

* Enumerator training sessions are more disorganized than the management of the Los Angeles Unified School District. To reserve my spot in a training class, I was obliged to speak with four schedulers. Once in the class, we ran out of materials and were given conflicting information.

* Most homeless people are less concerned about remaining anonymous than they are about veterans' benefits and retaining a captive audience for their strongly held, if sometimes creatively expressed, opinions.

Some things have changed since 1790, when President Washington signed the first census act. Then, the stated purpose of taking a regular census was twofold--to determine a representative composition of Congress and to pay the debt of the American Revolution by dividing it equally among the revolters. Our clever forefathers believed both purposes must be served because if the census were only for determining congressional representation, each state might inflate its numbers to ensure more legislative muscle; if the census served only to initiate the Great American Tradition of tax paying (and its corollary, tax evading), then the count might have been too slim.

In the 22 subsequent census years, the census has served scores of purposes, such as determining private indebtedness, fishery efficiency and who worships what deities and where. While the scope and reach of each decade's count have reflected the changing realities of a physically, socially and technologically growing nation, they all have two things in common: A primary purpose remains congressional apportionment, and temporary workers are hired to count people, mostly in their own neighborhoods (which, in my case, is not rural Montana but Santa Monica). In addition to thousands of office clerks and other temporary workers, this year the federal government estimates that it will hire 500,000 census enumerators, 20,000 of them in the Southern California/Hawaii region.

Enumerators never forget that this is a federal gig. Bureaucracy rules. I hope I'm not in breach of my confidentiality oath to share how the woman in charge of processing enumerator pay forms addressed our group of trainees: "I'm the OSS. You don't have the 155s? It's your responsibility to know which 308s you've turned in. There's a problem with your cert, and I can't issue a D-155 without a cert . . . to make a change in your D-308. . . . Blah, blah, blah, SF-50Bs, blah, blah, blah, RCC, blah, blah, blah."

"Your tax dollars at work," I said to the guy sitting next to me, an actor who used the 30-minute lunch break to audition for a commercial. He replied, "Remember, this is the government."

I'm guessing Thomas Jefferson never envisioned journalists or actors playing the role of enumerators. As secretary of state during the first census, Jefferson enlisted the aid of U.S. marshals as temporary enumerators. He figured theirs was one of the few civilian agencies with an established field organization. In other words, they knew where you lived. The marshals were paid $1 for counting each 50 people.

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