Every Last One: A Guy With a Weakness for Demography Goes Door to Door for the Census and Discovers What a Democracy Is Made of
When a woman told me she couldn’t talk because she had to throw up, I didn’t press the issue. And I didn’t contradict the shirtless, thoroughly buzzed young man who glanced at the official list of racial choices, smiled broadly, and said he was a dog. But I did make a note to contact these people again, up to five more times, until they gave me an answer I could put on the form. And when an old white guy wearing a ball cap with an eagle on it said “there are three adults here and that’s all I’m going to tell you” and then shut the door in my face, that was okay. I took out my number two pencil and wrote “03” in the box for question S5 and “REFUSED” under the other questions. It didn’t bother me if the guy was cursing through his closed door while Rush Limbaugh was grinding away in the background. I had a legal right to ask these questions, and I had done my job. He had been counted.
Taking the census of the United States requires the scale and complexity of a small war: The 23rd version cost about $14.5 billion. Over the spring and summer of 2010, 675,000 employees (most of them temporary) counted more than 300 million Americans in 131 million households. They also reached about 8.5 million more in prisons, nursing homes, college dorms, and other group quarters, along with several hundred thousand in homeless shelters, under bridge abutments, and even in caves. It took less than $2.8 billion to count 72 percent of the 131 million households—those whose inhabitants simply received a form in the mail, filled it out, and sent it back. More than $5.2 billion was spent chasing people who either didn’t get a form or ignored it. The “non-respondents” were mostly young, poor, rural, or transient. They were pursued by a legion of badge-toting men and women who hoisted shoulder bags emblazoned with a large census logo. The enumerators cajoled and reassured whomever they were assigned to see, doing whatever it took to get the answers. For a few weeks, I was in that army. I wanted to meet a few of those slackers and ask them why they had neglected their civic duty.