The letter from the Census Bureau came a month ago. The second one came about two weeks later. Both contained the ID number assigned to our address, and the login was a snap. The questions themselves took such a few minutes that I thought I must have missed something important. Address verification? Yes, it was correct. Household population? Two of us. People questions? Race, ethnicity, a little dicey but whatever. Done in minutes. OK, a day late but more timely than my Christmas cards ever are.
Done, and counted. Good citizen, here. There will be no need to send someone to my door to complete the questionnaire. When that’s even possible. I hear the Census Bureau has pledged to have the counting done by year’s end. By the way, here’s a quick and easy 30-second pitch for what this is all about.
My undergrad degree is in Urban Affairs. I was living in New York City and in my fifth and final college (Hunter College, City University of New York) when I completed a ten-year higher education journey with a BA in UA, minor in Spanish in 1982. The City was an inspiring laboratory, and the degree gave me working experiences with the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), tabulating population data that showed where there was a need for some kind of policy. I don’t remember the details, but I do remember the power of numbers. My undergrad experience at Hunter also landed me a part-time job in the Sociology Department’s Masters of Social Science Research program under Pam Stone, Ph.D., an expert in women in the workplace issues.
This was not my only NYC experience with demographics. In 1980, I was one of the hundreds of thousands of enumerators across the US that spring, knocking on doors and ringing doorbells to complete questionnaires. My turf was Yorkville, the neighborhood on the Upper East Side of Manhattan that was still more railroad flats and walk up apartments than it was co-ops and high-rises. It was my neighborhood: Ray and I lived on 73rd and York, from where Hunter was a 15 minute walk in one direction, the Mayor’s Gracie Mansion along the East River a 15 minute walk in another direction, and Central Park was two blocks beyond the Lexington Avenue train, 15 minutes there too.
However, NYC Transit Workers Union called a labor strike when I had to get to Census Bureau training in mid-town Manhattan (I think it was the Time-Life Building on Avenue of the Americas and 50th). I strapped on a pair of running shoes and joined the throngs of walkers in business attire (plus running shoes) striding their way to work. Yes, it was the transit strike of 1980 that ushered in the era of wearing sneakers to work. The strike was settled 11 days later, but the comfortable shoes stayed on for our commutes.
We got the job done that spring, and into summer, as we followed up with people who had not sent in the questionnaire. That’s supposed to happen this time, too, but the Census Bureau and its cadre of enumerators have a whole lot more than a transit strike to deal with this year. The coronavirus pandemic has us all locked in.
During the time my father was with the American Embassy in Bogotá in the mid-1960s, Colombians were ordered to stay at home in order for the country to count its population. My sister and I stayed home from school. I watched from my bedroom window as a lady with a bag strapped across her chest opened our squeaky gate and came up our brick driveway. Whatever transpired between her and my parents happened in the study without me.
Being home used to mean being available to be counted. Today, being home means being unavailable to an outsider, but perhaps it’s giving us the time to do the right thing. It’s pretty easy.
And Americans’ political power in Washington — and the amount of Federal funds we get — depend on knowing where we are and who we are, legal or not, in quarantine or not. That’s pretty important.