Hi. I'm Bill Branyon with the U.S. Census Bureau. I'm what they call an enumerator (that means I can count). Got a moment?
Some libertarians, anarchists, Tea Partiers and Republicans believe I'm the vanguard of a bloated and intrusive government. But most folks I've counted say I'm a welcome representative of the U.S. Constitution, which commands: "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several states … [and] Enumeration shall be made … every subsequent Term of ten Years."
This is the 23rd incarnation of the census, first taken in 1790, when America was still licking its wounds from a courageous fight for freedom from a brutal British tyranny. Today, my roughly 400,000 Census Bureau colleagues and I are part of what many see as a new tyranny.
The 2010 census seems especially dramatic, because we're in the midst of an immigration crisis. One question on the census form asks if people are of Latino, Spanish or Hispanic origin. But this year could also be said to resemble the 1890 census, when the Irish were fleeing potato blight; or 1880, when Europeans were fleeing conscription for Bismarck's incessant wars; or 1870, when the Chinese were fleeing poverty in hopes of landing railroad work.
OK, so it's just one more census, and yet another sick-and-tired population is yearning to breathe free and find more security — and prosperity. Of course, if we had a national population policy, we could tell immigrants that we just don't want any more people. Instead we follow the poem engraved on Lady Liberty's statue, letting businesses attract as much cheap, desperate labor as they can.
Locally, however, we could follow the suggestion by Asheville City Council member Cecil Bothwell and just ignore federal immigration laws, along with immigration-related census questions. Maybe we should see humanity as one big, happy family: one planet, under birth control…
But this ideal conflicts with a recent Asheville Citizen-Times story bemoaning the fact that Buncombe County “lags” behind the state and nation, since its population increased by only 25,000 in the last 10 years.
Quiet desperation and too-noisy affirmation
One of the big perks of census work is getting a license to snoop around when you're not home. Theoretically I'm trying to figure out whether anyone is living in your home, but meanwhile, I'm having a great time judging your taste in landscaping and house design and your level of conspicuous consumption.
I am happy to report that, for the most part, Ashevilleans appear to have exquisite taste. There are those who are severely aethestically challenged, however.
Thanks to all this, I may now know more about your neighbors than you do. But don't worry, I'll never spill the specifics: If I did, they'd fine me $250,000 and put me away for five years.
After three attempts to catch you at home, I'll start asking your neighbors about you. In some Asheville neighborhoods, residents know a lot about one another. In others, there appears to be precious little neighborly communication. On average, there seem to be about two recluses and two hyperextroverted fonts of local info per neighborhood.
And perhaps that's a major, unstated question of the census that we enumerators, viewing as we do a huge socioeconomic range, are uniquely positioned to assess: Just how well is our collective pursuit of happiness going? How happy is Asheville?
My answer? It totally depends. There are your traditional, married families with kids gallivanting in obviously ecstatic freedom. And your groups of long-term roommates who've cohabited in apparently harmonious diversity. Then there are the extended tragedies, such as elders whose deaths went so unnoticed by neighbors (or even real estate agents) that the house has sat untouched and empty for years. Or those folks so worried about money or misfortune that they assume any intrusion must just mean more big trouble.
There are two Americas, as sad John Edwards said during his better days. It's true enough emotionally, but even more so economically, especially here in Asheville. I often interviewed big families crammed into 800 square feet of claustrophobia scrunched up dustily against other tiny houses. Other neighborhoods featured mansions standing empty on large, magnificently landscaped lots; we designated these "seasonal or vacation housing." As often as not, the neighbors say they've never seen anyone in these humongous places — ever.
Your tax dollars at work
Perhaps the most intrusive question census workers were instructed to ask is whether your unmarried roommate(s) are your "unmarried partner(s)." That is, are you having straight, gay, or whichever-way sex with your roommate(s). In a city as progressive as Asheville, such a question is now clearly irrelevant.
I hear many complaints about how inefficient the census is. Well, having built our whole enormous organization virtually from scratch, we don't run as smoothly as a giant corporation that's been around for decades. But we haven't exceeded the $13 billion appropriated by Congress for the task. Nor are we eviscerating the Gulf of Mexico in the name of some brutal drive for endlessly increasing profits, nor demanding trillion-dollar bailouts to cover our profligate gambling, nor pressuring Congress to fight oil wars for whatever reasons. In my book, the census is pretty darn good for government work — or any work.
Now, however, the 2010 census is almost over, and I'm ready to return to my more revolutionary life of trying to ensure that everyone has decent, secure housing, and the population is stabilized enough to avoid a Malthusian nightmare.
Don't totally relax, though: I'll be back in 10 years posing new, perhaps even more outrageous questions that you, Asheville, are constitutionally required to answer — but have the magnificent freedom not to.
Asheville author Bill Branyon is now marketing his latest book, Liberating Liberals.