Sunday, July 04, 2010

Census 3

Well, I'm being asked for my badge back, so I'm officially no longer a federal employee. Of course, I don't really trust some random guy texting me asking for my badge, and will probably ignore whoever tries next. How impossible does it seem for anyone to abuse the badge? They're meant to just sit around doing nothing after they've served their purpose. That's how it would work.

Let's pick back up with the narrative. I tried to build up a reputation of near-superhuman efficiency. I estimated it would be possible to actually complete two forms an hour, if it took 10 minutes for an interview and 5 minutes to fill out an NV (Notice of Visit) form. We were told that the main thing they were able to note about our performance was the number of completions per hour, but naturally we could tweak this based on what hours we reported.

The absolute rule was No Overtime: if we filed for more than 40 hours we would be immediately fired. This was never a problem because it was so unlikely we would find anyone at home and answering the door at anything other than the evening that it was pointless working entire days. Of course, we were encouraged to vary our hours, so that we weren't always visiting a particular home at the same time every time and wasting our three in-person visits. Especially once I came back from Europe and was essentially mopping up complete non-responders, we often had to work weekdays in order to interview superintendents and building managers during their working hours.

I had a binder with a list of addresses and the EQs (Enumerator Questionnaires) for two buildings still waiting to be finished when I got back. I'd done most of one building and none of the other. While I'd been gone, extra paperwork (a list of submitted cases for each day) had been added on to try and improve the way EQs were being sort of lost between enumerator and area supervisor and prevent overworking crew leaders. Naturally, we would forget to mark the status of cases in the binder before turning these in and then wouldn't remember what to write in there. I'm not sure how the address lists were used, but they were the source of the most sensitive bulk name/address information.

The mop-up we were doing at the end of May was mostly EQs without binders, anyway. I became the person sent out to clean up after census takers who had already quit or been fired, usually quietly. I am quite proud of being good at this job, and do wish there were something similar I could do permanently. Being retained may have just meant they didn't want to waste my training, or that I'd had less time to fuck up already, but I it may also have meant I was more persistent or could take rejection better or maybe was just less likely to be rejected - or wasted less time. Which is not to say I didn't have many, many reasons to question what I was doing and how I appeared.

Whatever the reason, most of what I did this point involved some real problem-solving, a little sleuthing, and a lot of dealing with doormen, supers, and building managers who only knew their non-disclosure policies and financially-motivated private ownership loyalties. Sometimes I felt that all they were trying to conceal with indignant hostility was simply ignorance. The most memorable instance was when a building super refused to even read the confidentiality agreement. When I slipped it under his door, he opened the door, crumpled it up, threw it at me, and said "make yourself a meatball". Then threatened to call the cops. We just talked to management instead.

I've been asked for more jokes, but unfortunately I have a New Yorker cartoon instead.

Christ, what an asshole.

Naturally, I have some nitpicks with census humor. The big problem is that it always seems to be about nonconformity. But also: why does the census taker know his name already? That's what he's there to find out. Yes, even the association of a name with an address needs recording. This may be why our neighborhood ended up with a lot of doorman proxies. Also, the question is not "What is your sex?" It is "are you male or female?" I kept hoping I'd run into anyone who'd say yes to both or neither, but it was always that question we had to sort of apologize for asking. The point is, it's gender (social information) rather than sex (biological information). Although apparently the census really makes a point of reminding people that their babies are people. Especially when it's not their baby.

There's always that question that's more of just a thing we had to remember to fill out than something we always asked: was there anyone else who may have been staying with you on April 1? And a list of options including foster children, relatives, and transients "without a permanent place to stay".

How do you really know cats aren't homeless guys in fur coats?

I think my favorite part of training was when someone started making assumptions within an example, and our instructor said, "you're making sense. Stop it." Fighting the superstitious qualities of assumption is one of my favorite issues: stop making sense stop making sense. It actually was a bad idea to fill in gaps, because there really is a wide variety of living arrangements. In NYC especially there are a lot of the very fun-to-say WHUHE (woo-hee) situations: Whole Household Usual Home Elsewhere. Families keep their Queens toehold and have relatives staying there while they live in another country entirely, or travel for work, etc. In practice, if we made too much sense, and it was wrong, we actually would get less information, sometimes because it alienated our enumeratee. But again, we had to apply sense as to when to make sense. Sense is sensual, logic embodied.

I don't know whether it was because the objective of the census triggered my pre-existing scientific fundamentalism, or I was just really happy to have a job that required brains, but I got annoyingly passionate about justifying counting people. A friend admitted that he lived in a non-residential building and would likely not be counted, and it drove me nuts, especially when it appeared that, like many hip kids these days, he'd rather not officially exist. Often in these cases a reluctance to reveal the illicitness of one's living conditions is cited as the justification for reluctance, and I've become severely frustrated that I lack the rhetoric to explain the isolation of the census from any authority who would care.

I know that my emotional and intellectual involvement in my tiny uninformed corner of the information-constructor makes me exceptional, and is the attitude most likely to prevent exactly the desultory functioning for which I advocate. The high-functioning stupidity required is a role all of us had to play, and I suspect it doesn't matter how thoroughly one obervational tool observes when it can't observe another part of the machine. If I used body metaphors here I think that would really defeat the purpose - the more mixed the metaphor the better, when we know that what we're talking about is a complicated social interaction of humans, paper, and computers (and a few others).

The enumerator handbook writers certainly don't know how to put it. Their dialogue of escalating refusal ends with a history lesson. Of course, saying the U.S. census started in 1790 only cements its status as symptom of the modern state. My plan was to appeal to peoples' natural curiosity, but it turns out curiosity is anything but natural or even common. "How do you imagine we know how many people exist at all?" I want to ask. Democracy itself is a minority, and people just don't see themselves as makers of the information they need. I grew up with Sim City, in which the headcount was just a computer calculation. My mind wants there to be a stable truth, not one generated by and even contingent upon the very cultural attitudes and fluctuations it records.

"When you read a statistic, do you consider yourself to be included in it?" I want to ask. Are those who don't think anyone needs to know how old they are or where they live the same people who lament that statistics they hear don't seem to represent their everyday reality, or seem too fuzzy? The census advertising focused on "the community", which automatically doesn't make people recognize how defined they are by their geographical location, but implies something they already feel separate from.

It should be less difficult to make the connection between micro and macro, but the way that connection is made - pulled through the bureaucratic medium toward the center of the katamari ball - stymies our social minds because not even the starseed can see the big picture. It is always hard to understand how a series of individual decisions add up to government. Conspiracy theorists feed on this kind of psychological gap, because this is how evil is done without anyone to blame - and how individual lives are improved without any particular hero. I do wonder if the moral reliability of census workers plays a significant part in how well the count improves local services. The causal relationships are extremely shakey, and it's best to keep causality out of things like this. I actually feel that the system works based on indifference to the values of its cogs. It is, in fact, the indifference of the cogs to what they are doing that contains the minimal information, keeping them from either getting it from anywhere else or giving it to anyone but their immediate superiors. The most critical part is that the information actually isn't useful except on the wider "general statistics" scale for which it is intended.

I think I've covered everything from my perspective but if you think there's something missing or are less than reassured by my approach let's get into that. Thanks for reading, and please add anything else you know. I'd like to touch these posts up and republish them, if there's somewhere I can do that. I mostly hope my census discussion inspires you to hire me.

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