TTTE loves surveys. As a student of survey design, I saw the chance to participate in America’s decennial census as quite an honour! Well it turned put to be a dubious kind of a honour, tinged with confusion and dismay. I do not consider myself particularly precious, but I cannot abide these seemingly pedestrian errors:
The census arrived saying ‘Fill it out on April 1.’ … Inside the envelop was an accompanying letter from the Director of the Census Bureau asking that it be completed and mailed back, Today! Why do they ask me to fill in details for a date ten days into the future?
Surely if they want an accurate snapshot of the population on April 1, shouldn’t they ask for the form to be mailed back on April 2?
If that wasn’t confusing enough…
Question 1: How many people were living or staying in this house, apartment or mobile home on April 1 2010?
The list of qualifications is long and intriguing: Count all people, including babies, who live and sleep here most of the time. Do not count people at college, armed forces, nursing home, in jail.
Eh? That’s the path to a bunch of useless outcomes! Do they want the people sleeping in the house on the night in question, or the people who usually sleep in the house? Both?
Question 6: The census is fixated on race.
The census asked me if I am white, black, asian or one of eleven other options (see below). I guess my skin is, in certain places, whitish. But I’ve never had to describe myself as such…
But to focus on race misses the bigger picture. Don’t they want to know if I’m an immigrant? A citizen? What is my original nationality? Why so obsessed with skin colour?
Asking about race means non-significant differences are amplified and significant differences are masked. A Sudanese refugee would mark the same box as Barack Obama.
The Asian kids at Berkeley are mainstream American. Much more so than any transplanted Australian. But if you had one Burmese grandparent, would you describe yourself as white? Probably not. And so their race is counted, to mark them as ‘different’.
Why put such an important question in such uninformative terms? Asking about language spoken, country of birth and parents’ country of birth gives a much more nuanced view of patterns of ethnicity, linguistic diversity and possible subsequent disadvantage.
To add to the fun, the census website has no useful FAQ. All of these problems likely explain the fact that one in three American households don’t bother to send their form back.
Meanwhile the Australian census has about 40 pages of useful information on health, wealth, education, transport choices, etc. That’s why I ♥ the ABS. Shout out to my homies in Belconnen.
At home, the census is not controversial outside the tea-room at the ABS. Statisticians probably get up in arms over question-wording. But in the US, oh boy.
When people like these say ‘the Government’, they mean ‘the cabal of bankers and industrialists who secretly run the world‘. They want a fictionally powerful body to blame things on. But ‘the Government’ is of and by us. The government is us. Fearing it is an embrace of powerlessness, and there’s a whole strain of American politics that makes that fear an unimpeachable talisman.
Anyway, the end result of all the fighting and incompetence is one-and-a-half measly pages of confusing malarkey.
Which informed the alternative title for this piece, which, sadly, got voted down in committee: The US census: a shit census!