As we approach 2020, my past life as a Census Bureau director begins to intrude, with calls from journalists about my thoughts on the funding, design, and politics surrounding the next census. Each decade about this time (the year ending in “8”), funding issues come to the fore, concerns over the latest census technological innovation arise, and a re-education takes place for political elites about the independence of the operations of the census. This decade is no different. This is the year, under the current laws and regulations, that the final form of the census questions is selected and verified by Congress. This is the year that funding must ramp up for the large-scale field data collection operations to contact households that don’t themselves answer the call when first made. This is the year that, like it or not, key risks of the next census start to come clear.
While there are complicated statistical and data processing issues involved in any census, my memories of the experience arise from completely different aspects. One of the duties of a director during the census is to promote civic participation in the census, encouraging each household to provide information requested by the census. The director does a lot of traveling, focusing time and attention on communities where prior research has shown to be reluctant to respond to the census.
I spent time on the Texas-Mexico border. I visited several “colonias,” which are collections of self-made housing, often lacking electricity and water services. Many are placed on unused fields of ranchers and farmers, who rent small plots on which the structures are built. The extent of undocumented persons is high. Fear of the Federal Government is widespread. Many residents have fled countries in which the government could not be trusted. In this environment, we attempted to convey the message that all persons are part of the US census, whether they are citizens or not, whether they are documented or not. I tried to assure them of the strong legal protections of data confidentiality. I found families with admirable resilience, communities with very strong bonds, and households that shared among themselves in admirable ways. Indeed, they had come to the country for the same reasons that many, many others came to the US: the hope that the next generation would have lives that were safer and more financially secure than the current generation.
I spent time with Muslim-American and Arab-American groups in multiple cities. I will never forget a dinner with such a group. As the dinner progressed at a table of 10 or so persons, and we became more comfortable with one another, the father of a large family asked what the question about “race” should mean for them. Did the census seek a self-report of skin-color? Was it something else? It reinforced the fact that the social constructions of the American experience were not ubiquitous to all cultures now in the country.
I spent time with groups connected with various islands of Micronesia, each with strong cultural bonds both within their US communities but also with their islands of origin. They sought recognition of their numbers within the larger fabric of the country. They were proud of their hyphenated American community and looked to the census to make known to the society how their numbers had increased over the previous ten-year period. They too sought the opportunities for their children in the US and were full believers in the American Dream.
These groups on the whole were not rich in money, but they were wealthy in the bonds of family, friends, and community. It made me proud of how the country is enriched by their contribution to the social fabric.