June 04, 2010

Hire Everyone for the Census

Although I'm personally down on the Census. While in Florida recently, I stayed at a condo in Delray Beach owned by a colleague at work. One Sunday night, a census worker, a woman in perhaps late middle-age, nervous, suspicious, slightly creepy, came to the door. She identified herself with various badges, certificates and other paraphernalia. I had the sense that she had staked out this condo for several weeks, waiting for a light to come on. I invited her in, we pulled up a couple of cane chairs at the round table in the kitchenette. The following conversation ensued:

Census: Do you live here?
Walden: No.
C: Do you know who does?
W: Yes, a colleague in California, although he doesn't actually live here.
C: I wouldn't be coy with the census if I were you.
W: Wouldn't you...or couldn't you?
(Okay, that part didn't happen. It's from "Bananas.")
C: Do you know who was here on April 1?
W: No.
C: Who would?
W: [gives (up) name of colleague]
C: Would he know who was here?
W: I would imagine.
C: Can you give me his number?
W: I don't think I would actually feel comfortable giving it out.
C: I'll give you my number, and can you have him call me?

[Gives me her number.]

W: The thing is, it doesn't really matter who was here on April 1. Anyone staying here, including the owner, actually lives somewhere else and would be counted there. Wouldn't they?
C: For each address, we're supposed to find out who was there on April 1.
W: Okay, suppose we say that no one was here. That's probably true, too.
C: Do you know that for a fact?
W: No.

Two days passed. Naturally, since I was on vacation, I didn't disturb my colleague; meaning, I didn't follow up. Personally, I don't want Florida to have any more votes than they have now. I haven't forgotten the 2000 election. Arriving home on Tuesday night, I went upstairs and, fatefully, turned on the light. A few minutes later there was a knock at the door.

C: Were you able to reach your friend? I didn't get a call.
W: I haven't been able to reach him. (Technically true. It's hard to reach people you haven't called.)
C: Well, I need to find out who was here on April 1.

I decided not to revisit our earlier dialogue touching on the logic of this quest, feeling it was adequately covered in the previous interview.

Later that night, leaving the condo, I saw the census worker a few doors away, questioning another suspect. I went downstairs to my rental car, and noticed, a few spaces away, a car with an American flag suction-cupped to the right passenger window. I returned in about an hour. The car was still there. The U.S. Census, laboring long into the night. The next morning I came down to the car, noticing first that the Census car was gone, and then observing that there was a gouge in the right passenger door of my rented Korean sedan, as if someone had struck the panel with a golf club and scraped it along the side. Let's just say I immediately had my suspicions and let it go at that. I used up the rest of my vacation time taking the car in for an estimate to protect my insurer from an outrageous claim from Budget, photographing the damage with my iPhone and emailing that to the insurer, calling the local sheriff to report an act of vandalism, and in general acting like a responsible adult about this unfortunate episode. No hard feelings; this country believes in doing what it has to, to get people to talk.

Sheriff: Any suspects?
W: Well...not really.
Sheriff: Is this a gated community?

(What isn't, in South Florida?)

W: Yes.
Sheriff: Could be security cameras then.

Visions of a case under the Federal Tort Claims Act danced in my head, but only for a moment. The country has enough problems.

The USA has hired 600,000 temporary workers for the census program. Let's assume there are about 320 million American citizens. News reports indicate that about 75% of American households responded by mail. That leaves 80 million people presently uncounted. With 600,000 workers canvassing for reluctant citizens (or those on the lam, or hiding from ex-wives), we've got one canvasser for every 133 people. Most of our recent "job growth" is attributable to two things only: Birth/Death of business estimates (total guesswork) and census hires. I begin to see that my slightly desperate census worker was just working the tiny territory alloted to her, and working it very hard. I almost feel bad. It's just that it didn't make any sense...

This is No Country for Old Men, nor for those who insist on rationality. If hiring one of out of about every 500 Americans to count the rest of us makes any sense, and if we're going to call that "economic recovery," then logic is hardly our first priority.

Tell you what: let's just say I was there on April 1.

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