Census: form in hand, questions in mind

Posted by & filed under Politics.

On slashdot.org there’s a recurring joke — in Soviet Russia [any noun] [any verb] you! In this case it would be “in Soviet Russia, census participates in you!” (yes, grammatically incorrect, but you get the picture).

But to my surprise, US census form seems to be asking for more personal information, than Russian one. There was a country-wide census in Russia in 2002, and if you look at the actual census form (sorry, only in Russian), you would notice a peculiar fact — there are no fields for name, or phone number, though form also asks if people that live with you are your relatives.

So, of course I don’t understand why the census form asks for name or phone number. A note on official site says “so you wouldn’t forget to count everyone” and “so we can call if we have questions”. That’s an odd excuse. If someone forgets about another person who lives with them, they wouldn’t write name nor include her/him in the total count. In fact, I don’t think people actually count by listing full names in their minds. When someone asks you “how many people live with you” you do a quick mental inventory (“parents — that’s two, plus wife, and my boy, the answer is four”) instead of listing actual names and counting them.
Also, who would answer a phone these days if it’s a call from an unknown number? Heck, given the identity theft epidemics and scammers, I wouldn’t agree to tell a stranger my birthday.

So, I think the form should simply say “we’d like to have a full name and phone number for everyone who lives in America”. Super-mega-white pages with data available only to the government agencies and scientists.

Given the number of commercial databases that happily sell any information to anyone for a few bucks, would people really be more upset than left thinking “why do they want my name? why won’t they allow me to list my country of origin if I’m not Hispanic?”
But I guess it’s bureaucracy awkwardly trying to pretend being human again, so I filled all fields out. Yet another listing in government database won’t make any difference.

Oh, and while on the subject of weird questions — way to go on question number 10. That’s a nifty way to pack a number of unrelated questions into a single one. Let’s see:

Does the person 1 sometimes live or stays somewhere else?
◻ No ◻ Yes – mark all that apply:
– in college housing
– in the military
– at a seasonal or second residence
– for child custody
– in jail or prison
– in a nursing home
– for another reason

Now, if this is not a vague question, I don’t know what is.
In “Start Here” section instructions clearly say: “Do not count anyone living away either at college, or in the Armed Forces. Do not count anyone in a nursing home, jail, prison, detention facility, etc, on April 1 2010. Leave these people off your form, even if they will return to live here after they leave college, the nursing home, the military, jail, etc. Otherwise, they may be counted twice”.

Therefore, if you actually follow instructions, your answer to question 10 is most likely to be “No”.
Because otherwise you wouldn’t be counted, right?
So, why ask about living somewhere else? Probably because it’s an easy way to compress the following questions in one:

“in college housing” — are you a student?
“in the military” — enrolled in the military?
“at a seasonal or second residence” — do you have a second home/time share?
“for child custody” — are you divorced with partial custody, and your child lives with an ex-spouse?
“in jail or prison” — obvious answer here
“in a nursing home” — do you live in assisted living facility?
“for another reason” — suddenly instead of place, it asks for the reason of living somewhere else. I’m at loss here…

Again, all of that information is available from commercial databases, so there’s really no need to ask for it. Or there could be a disconnect between one department, that writes general instructions for filling out the form, and another department that actually makes up questions, lists answers and decides on how to solve the problem of entering data into computer systems.

I wish the census would be done online. It’d be so much faster and easier, to just allow people to enter that unique code from the form into web field, and then mark all the answers on the spot (those who have no access to the internet would fill out the form and mail it back as before). No need for months of processing, lots of money saved on mailing and handling, more accurate results (if you write chicken-scratch like me, due to massive amount of keyboard use, I pity the optical scanner)…

Oh well. Hopefully in another 10 or 20 years…

One Response to “Census: form in hand, questions in mind”

Leave a Reply