In those days, the Census Bureau sent out paper forms to every household in the country and one was supposed to fill them out, accurately if possible, and mail them back to the government. Most people did exactly that, but quite a few procrastinated or refused, and that’s where i come into the story.
It sounded like it might be fun. All we had to do was visit those homes where the people had chosen not to return the forms and politely ask them to give us the answers, which we would then mark on the forms for them. We got a pittance for each form we were able to complete and submit. I’ve forgotten now how much it was, but it wasn’t a fortune; we did it mainly for the experience. Well, we were young.
There were actually two forms. As you might imagine, people who received the Short Forms tended to go ahead and mail them back. This form, which was not much but the count of people in the household, names and ages, and relationship to the head of household, provided the main content for which the census was initiated. It gave the powers that be the raw counts which would determine where political boundaries would be set and how many electoral votes would be allocated to an area. That’s a pretty simple reading, but so was the Short Form.
The Long Form, on the other hand, asked for a few more bits of information. These are the ones that caused the folks to say rude words and toss the form in the first place.
At our indoctrination meeting before we went forth to garner the census information, our group leader let us know what was what.
“Some of these people don’t want to tell the government what race they are. What they don’t realize is that we take as gospel whatever they put on the form. Therefore, if the door is opened by a large, extremely black man and he says he’s Chinese, you mark Chinese, and do it with a smile.” It wasn’t up to us to inform anyone that all sorts of social programs might hinge on their answers.
She mentioned a few other rather sensitive issues as well. “If they live on a six acre parcel in Beverly Hills and have a whole house full of servants who are all better paid than census takers (which is not unreasonable to assume), and they say their income is $3,000 per year, what do you write? Exactly.”
She scanned our bewildered faces. “Remember, all you’re doing is transcribing the information they would have put on the form if they did it in the first place.”
Most of the people I visited were cooperative in the end. I suppose the main reaction I got was minor annoyance (think: telephone surveys), with a sprinkling on one end of doors slammed and on the other of coffee and cookies. In every case I just marked my little form, said the prescribed thank yous and went on my way.
I liked having the little bit of extra money. The main thing I got out of it at the time, though, was a little wider experience of people and a better understanding of how the population tables came up with an “average” family of husband, wife, two-and-a-half kids and a dog. (It was 1980, ok?)
I’m a lot older now, and occasionally I take a dip in the genealogy pool. I don’t go crazy with it, but it is kind of exciting to peruse the census records for, say, 1900 and find that my grandmother lived with her parents and six brothers and sisters on a farm in Nebraska. What caused her to travel to the big city of Blair just at the right time to meet my grandfather, fall in love, and become part of a family chain that would someday include me? And will someone, someday, check out the 1980 census and make my notes a part of their own research?
I hope so.
I’ll see you again, after the commercial.