Censoring census cynics

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.

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30 thoughts on “Censoring census cynics

  1. J

    It’s just wonderful to a see a non-partisan, federal employee lashing out at certain groups. I guess government isn’t what it used to be.

    Let’s see, do partisan census takers increase or decrease my faith in the Census Bureau….hmmmm?

  2. Dirk Digglar

    I did some enumeratin myself, made some xtra money…for a few weeks.

    Can you BELIEVE there are people out there, OVER the age of 20+, who dont even KNOW what the Census IS??? I was dumbstruck.

  3. Dirk Digglar

    now that I finished the article, I find Branyon to be quite a good writer. Ill check on his new book, but cant promise to buy it.

    and yes, the intrusive government will want more questions answered in 10 more years if America keeps sliding to the substandard, which looks imminent.

  4. LOKEL

    I think it is a hoot that they ask your neighbors if they can’t contact and individual …. can you imagine what some folks neighbors would say about them ….

    I would like to hear what people who were/are “afraid” of the census would say about their neighbors being questioned about them!

  5. travelah

    The census understands my neighbors to be black indians although if the truth be told they are whiter than Scandinavian pale.

  6. Great report. The right wingnuts have labored hard and long to characterize the census as some sort of liberal plot, when, as Bill notes, it is mandated by our Constitution.

    The snapshot provided by the decadal enumeration has proved very helpful in guiding government policy and directing resources through a couple of centuries. Anyone who attempts to block census taking, to cast it as pernicious, is hurting all of us in the wider community. I’m really pleased to see this account published.

  7. JWTJr

    He is a good writer. I hope is political positions don’t affect his ability to stay objective at his job. We need the real data, not the data will acheive a predetermined end.

  8. Piffy!

    how DARE the gov’t try and have an accurate measure of the country’s demographics!

    Next come the UN soldiers, people.

  9. If Bill Branyon did indeed take a temporary job as a census counter, that does not make him a real federal employee or a spokes model for the US Census Bureau.

    He is a writer. I smell humor.

  10. travelah

    The right wingnuts have labored hard and long to characterize the census as some sort of liberal plot, when, as Bill notes, it is mandated by our Constitution.

    Cecil, you are pasing gas over your tongue again. Can you demonstrate with examples to verify your notion that people who do not agree with you e.g. those you refer to as “right wingnuts”, object to the U.S. Census not realizing it is a Constitutional requirement? Notice the qualifier you raised in your statement and in my challenge ….No, I didn’t think so.

  11. Travelah, Right-wing talk radio was full of blather over the past year and the newly crowned Tea Party leader, Michelle Bachman, was fanning the flames, making wild claims about the nefariousness of the Census. (She finally sat down and shut up when someone pointed out to her that if she managed to suppress the Census takers in her district she might be redistricted out of a seat in Congress.)
    Limbaugh was particularly bad, as I have read. I don’t listen, so have no first-hand evidence.

    Census workers have faced far more violence this year than ever before as a result. Right here in WNC they have been threatened with guns and shot at, because the loonies have been spreading the word that it is part of an administration scheme to confiscate guns.

    Anyone who blathers on about the Census being some sort of new scheme cooked up by the current administration is self-evidently ignoring the fact that it has been done every ten years since 1790, and is Constitutionally mandated.

  12. Betty Cloer Wallace

    For Travelah the Mallett:

    In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.

    (New International Version of Bible)

  13. travelah

    Cecil, that is all and fine but what does that have to do with your notion thse opposed to the politicalization of the census were unaware of it’s Constitutional mandate?

    Betty, I personlly prefer the NKJ or NASB transaltions, but other than that, what was your point?

  14. travelah

    The ability to edit posts would be a nice thing here, especially for those us typing quickly on laptops

  15. Those to whom I refer were the ones who politicized the Census. They invented the fraud that it was somehow being politicized by the administration.

  16. travelah

    Cecil, that may or may not be the case however what does that have to do with your claim there is or was a general ignorance of the Constitutional requirements for a census? In addition to that, what evidence do you have that anybody engaged in inventing a fraud regarding census claims?

  17. “self-evidently ignoring the fact” Cecil
    “general ignorance of” travelah

    Is this a lack of comprehension or deliberate twisting?

    What would the right wing noise machine do?

  18. Dave

    OMG! they want an accurate sampling of hte population!

    Obama and Hitler BOTH wore shoes!

  19. Dirk Digglar

    Cecil, the Constitutionally mandated CENSUS did NOT require all the superflous questions that
    modern administrations have slipped in. All that is required is ‘how many people live in this house?’. But you knew that already, right?

  20. travelah

    …the right wing “noise machine” would do pretty much what the screeching left wing machine has been doing for years … work it an advantage.

  21. J

    Bothwell’s slightly in error.

    The current administration made initial advancements to alter the census. First, there was a disagreement over whether to move to statistical sampling, or stay with the effort to do a total count as it has been historically done. Secondly, when Republican Senator Judd Gregg appeared likely to become the next Secretary of Commerce, the White House made efforts to move the census control from the Department of Commerce to the White House. Both of these would have been political decisions and departures from precedent.

    While neither of these changes materialized, those concerned about the potential politicization of the census were not entirely without merit.

  22. Piffy!

    [b]…the right wing “noise machine” would do pretty much what the screeching left wing machine has been doing for years … work it an advantage.[/b]

    At least you can admit they are mirror images of each other.

  23. shadmarsh

    Having served as a Field Operations Supervisor and Crew Leader for this Census I can tell you that many of those working for me had all sorts of wingnut radio/media talking points spewed at them.
    I can also tell you that most of the virulence came from wealthier citizens.

  24. travelah

    At least you can admit they are mirror images of each other.

    They share similarities.

  25. travelah

    PhD, you could tell someone that but it isn’t going to necessarily be an acurate representation of the “truth”.

  26. shadmarsh

    I would wager I have fairly accurate understanding of the attitudes expressed toward the Census here in WNC. The vast majority of which had no problems whatsoever, and many–of all political persuasions were happy to do so– but I do know that most of the paranoia and hostility came from the right.

  27. sandwich

    travelah. Do you really think your line of questioning is all that clever? Any one can say, “Prove it” or “I Gotcha” on these forums without thinking for one little bit on their own. I challenge you to prove your position without naysaying and sticking to the facts. Be concise though, I hate windbags.

  28. sandwich, travelah’s point is never to prove anything or offer a legitimate position for his point of view. His shtick is simply about sowing confusion and discord. The right wing finds that the most fertile type of hunting grounds.

  29. HuhHuh

    “After three attempts to catch you at home, I’ll start asking your neighbors about you.”

    “One of the big perks of census work is getting a license to snoop around when you’re not home.”

    Gee, are you trying to make us be against the census even more than we were before?

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