01 October 2020

Papers, please (part two: the Census)

My first "papers."
When I wrote my first "Papers, please" post back in 2017, I had in mind the Trump administration's plan to end the USA's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, sending many or all "dreamers" back to the countries their parents had brought them from. I was thinking about all the ways governments use "papers" to control our movements, to keep us separated, grouped, and in our places. I quoted the Russian saying, "Without papers, you're nothing."

As the USA's 2020 Census comes to an end, I'm thinking about another use to which "papers" can be put: the very specific way they are used within the Census Bureau. The philosophy behind the Census Bureau's approach to individual documents seems to be almost the opposite of control.

When the Census Bureau documents our individual existences, it serves two purposes. First, any person who is counted in the Census (which ideally means every single person residing within the borders of the USA on April 1, 2020) is a human being worth painstaking effort to count and to record -- one person, one document. Second, that person's Census document is carefully guarded. For 72 years, the only use that can be made of that document is to generate anonymous statistics that give the Census Bureau's governmental and nongovernmental clients a demographic portrait of the country and all its states, counties, cities, and neighborhoods.

Last winter, every address on record with the U.S. Census Bureau received a questionnaire with three options for its completion: fill out and send the paper version back to the Bureau, answer the questionnaire over the phone (844-330-2020), or complete it online (see language options at top right of page). Since the end of July I've been a 2020 Census enumerator, going from home to home based on a list of addresses whose questionnaires were still unaccounted for. I was fascinating to see the seriousness of the Census Bureau's commitment to both aspects of the count: its dedication to the goal of representing every single person with a unique Census document, and to guarding the security of that document. Here are a few glimpses of that commitment.
  • All people who work with individual census documents must make a lifetime promise, sealed with an oath or affirmation, that they will never divulge anyone's private information beyond the authorized channels within the Census Bureau. We actually had to stand up and raise our right arms to make this promise.
  • As we talk with the people we are counting, we enter the information into a Census Bureau app on our government-issued iPhones. As soon as the interview is complete and the new individual record is submitted, we ourselves no longer have access to it.
  • One woman I interviewed, who came from a country with a different attitude to citizens' privacy, questioned me closely about the security of her data. "Why should I believe you?" she asked. I knew she would appreciate a direct answer: "If I break this promise, I could go to prison for five years."
  • During one extraordinary eleven-hour shift on September 23-24, I was part of a team that visited temporary roadside encampments and other exposed places where people without standard housing were living. (These people are often called "homeless" but the Census apparently prefers "houseless," not judging whether these places might in fact be homes.) In this shift we used paper census forms rather than our iPhones. We were under strict instructions not to disturb sleeping people or behave intrusively, so we sometimes had to count them "by observation." If we were unable to interact with someone for a full interview, we gave them Census designations on the forms in place of personal names, and we made no assumptions and recorded no personal information that did not come directly from the person concerned. Even without these details, each such paper form was strictly guarded and logged. The papers from each individual location, and the accompanying logs, were carefully filed in separate envelopes. There was never just a head count; instead there was one full page for each person, no matter how fleeting the encounter or how minimal the information.
Whether we used the phones or the paper forms, we were asked to use the exact words of the Census questionnaire and never make assumptions (for example, about sex or age or race) based on our own observation. Sometimes this presented cross-cultural challenges. For example, when asking people from some cultures whether they were male or female when they were standing right in front of you might seem strange to them, but I always simply explained that I was reading a script that required me not to answer questions on their behalf, but to let them decide what I should record. One muscular Russian man about my age, with his wife standing next to him, paused when I asked him whether he was male or female. As his wife greeted the question with a friendly snort, he said, "let me think about that for a moment."

The same question almost brought another interview to an end because the question was so non-negotiably binary. However, the questionnaire has a "refused to answer" response for every demographic question, and the person I was interviewing chose to take advantage of that option, and we continued. I hope that by the time of the 2030 Census there will be a more inclusive set of options.

The USA's census-taking process is inevitably political, because of the constitutional use of the census to determine the size of each state's delegation in the House of Representatives. and because census statistics help direct large segments of federal and state budgets. This year, Donald Trump's campaign to marginalize immigrants has put even more stress on the census. For example, the controversy over ending the data collection process on September 30 rather than October 31 has landed in court, and at the end of today's shift I cannot tell you whether I will be working tomorrow. However, my day-to-day experience of census work reassures me that, at least among the staff and management I worked with, the commitment to the integrity of the process remains in place.

As I was preparing to write this account of my 2020 Census experience -- and how "papers" can have a positive purpose -- our friend Bill Denham sent us a link to Elvira Piedra's beautiful explanatory tribute to the census.

Another form of "papers" with humane purpose -- the legendary Nansen passport.

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Woolman Hill and Beacon Hill Friends House co-sponsor an online Bible exploration series this fall: Walking with the Bible. (My thanks to Martin Kelley and his Quaker Ranter for the link.)

The Nazis murdered Jewish artist Gertrud Kauders -- but they never found the 700 paintings she carefully concealed in a house under construction in the Prague suburb of Zbraslav.

Rick Estrin and the Nightcats take it slow...

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