The 2020 Census is a Fiasco

I work for the Census Part 2

Pandemic Diary Entry #59

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Image by Júlia Orige from Pixabay

September 2, 2020

I have written how the census helps to distribute federal funds to states and local governments, as well as help to apportion seats in Congress. I have also written how the census is in real trouble this year due to political machinations. In this post, I would like to discuss how this all looks to the enumerators who are the people with boots on the ground.

First, the simple challenges of doing our jobs. I was sent to a boat dock on Chanel Creek near the Giants Baseball Stadium. Harbors are always locked down pretty tightly, and Chanel Creek does not have a harbormaster, so I was unable to access this area at all. Consider now, that there are actually several Marina’s in the bay area where people live, Sausalito’s houseboats are famous, and with the high cost of living, many more people most likely live on boats than we are aware of. The Bay Area also has Mobile Home Parks. These locations can be as difficult to access as a multi-unit building with no property manager.

Multi-unit buildings are a nightmare. In San Francisco, they can hold as many as 300 units. The buildings will all be locked, and in a major city, most people will not answer their intercom system unless they are expecting a package or know their friends are dropping by. So, I hang around the front door waiting for a tenant to go in or out so I can slip into the building and start knocking on doors. I have encountered two problems, often these lobbies are double locked, so if I get through the first door I am stuck in the vestibule with nowhere to go. The other is that many of the elevator systems require a fob to enter the elevator. So I am stuck standing in front of the elevator with my clipboard having accomplished nothing.

Even if the apartment building is a divine Victorian that has been converted to as few as 2 units, these buildings almost always have a double gate system. These occupants are no different than in a large complex, no one answers the bell unless they know their groceries are on their way.

There are high rises with front desk employees that simply deny you entry. My area is also filled with Single Room Occupancy hotels with residents who want nothing to do with the government. I have become inured to having doors slammed in my face. This is all compounded by the fact that no one wants to let anyone into their building during this time of COVID, and I do not blame them, and yes, we are required to wear a mask at all times.

San Francisco is the home of tech. The news has been filled with tech people told they can work from home until summer of next year. The result is, most young people are moving out of our high-rent city and heading either home to live with Mom and Dad, to Hawaii to work on the beach, or simply taking their families to less expensive cities or states with wide-open spaces and isolation from COVID. I have seen more moving vans in the city over the last few months than I have seen people on the streets. This means no one lives in many of the units we canvas. The census doesn’t care that the unit is empty, they want to know who lived there on April 1st. Impossible to ascertain when people have moved far and wide.

We are allowed to ask a neighbor for information about the people that have moved out. This is a big city, most people never meet their neighbor, let alone know anything about them, so while a viable concept in a more rural or suburban area, it simply does not work in a big city. We are missing a lot of people, and this will affect San Francisco in a negative way for many years to come.

Language has been a huge barrier in canvassing San Francisco. It may surprise some that there are over 112 languages spoken in the San Francisco Bay Area. Many of these people are not fluent in any other language than their native tongue. This year hiring for the San Francisco Bay Area census consisted of almost no enumerators with second language skills. I have heard that Chinese speaking enumerators in San Francisco amount to less than ten, and the number of Spanish speaking enumerators is too low to handle the large Latinx population in the Bay Area.

There are many large apartment complexes, especially in the densely populated areas such as the Tenderloin and South of Market area, that were built primarily to house elderly immigrants, counting them without a multi-lingual enumerator is nearly impossible.

Then there is the immigrant population that is hidden in plain sight. Immigrant populations tend to be renters. With the high cost of living in the Bay Area, they often crowd two or more families into one unit, legal or not. These families very rarely move to the suburbs, not only due to fear of immigrant backlash, but the suburbs often do not have the support system they need. The situation requires diligent and multi-lingual enumerators.

Despite what Fox News is feeding you, the largest growing group of undocumented people are Asian and nearly 500,000 of those live in California. Many of these may simply be grandmothers who came and over-stayed their visas, but this is a population that most definitely will not be comfortable talking to anyone from the census, and it would be impossible to do so without an interpreter.

So hiring and training multi-lingual enumerators is crucial, but we only have 28 days to do it.

Another issue is training. We were given several hours of on-line training before hitting the pavement. It was all on-line, due to COVID, so quality is severely lacking. Like any job, my knowledge has grown exponentially just by being in the field, but sometimes I wish I had had a classroom experience. I have gained a great appreciation for the concerns of parents and the education of their children via the internet.

Enumerators are given a list of cases each day, and if you have not completed your cases they disappear back into the system at the end of the day. The goal is to attempt every unanswered door at least 6 times. We can read each other’s notes. My experience in reading these notes is that the training is woefully inadequate or many enumerators are just phoning it in. It is also sad to hear of many enumerators just lacking proper social skills and not following the field guidelines. I have spoken to many building managers that used me as a punching bag to complain about other enumerators. It is okay, I am good for that. I live here, I understand city living, and I have always been able to calm them down, get them laughing, and then get the information they refused to give “the other guy”.

The inability of an enumerator to get information or to get cases sent to their phones is astounding. As I have said, the employees of the bureau are passionate, but the system is failing. The lack of communication and the insanity of the computer issues has caused many enumerators to simply walk off the job and never come back. I consider it almost daily.

This long-winded discussion of how hard it is to be an enumerator on a shortened timeline is just one part of why I feel that this census is in deep trouble.

I mentioned that we try to visit each residence at a minimum of 6 times. The problem is, where does that case go when the 6th time is reached? Is there a bone pile? If so it must be miles high.

Earlier, I explained how the US Census Bureau relies on other agencies to help fill in the blanks of closed, but unenumerated cases, this is a bandaid at best.

If the census is unable to enumerate a household, and other government agencies are not able to fill in the blanks, the census uses a statistical process called imputation. This is a statistical term that means they fill in the blanks based on historical and geographical information. If this process was used for between 1 and 3% of the respondents it would be viable, but with the immense gaps in this year’s response rate, imputation will be just another useless tool in a broken toolbox.

We have 28 days to get over 40% of California counted, and while I work with an amazing group of enumerators on a special task force, I don’t think even we self-described super workers, are going to get the job done.

Please fill out your census, encourage everyone you know to fill out their census. If you hire under the table employees or minorities, help them fill out their census. If your neighbor is elderly and not comfortable with a computer, help them fill out the census.

You can do all of that Right Here.

There are also a large number of charities working to help people fill out their census. If you know of a group of people that have not been counted, contact the Bay Area Census Funders Collaborative Grantees to find someone in your area to help.

Please help us get as many people in California counted as we possibly can.

It is all confidential, and we DO NOT ask if you are a citizen.

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