Watch out — the census taker will discover all your secrets. 

The Numerator is Here

I am the one who peers just inside the mailbox when the mailman leaves, and who waits patiently for your lights to turn on in the early evening. I know what car you drive, I know who you live with, and sometimes I even know why your light stays on until the wee hours. When you don't answer the door for me, your neighbors tell me everything.

And the Census Bureau and I believe everything they say. For the sake of filling out your "nonrespondent" census form, kids above the age of 15, your hired help, your neighbors and your landlord are all legitimate sources of information about you. After all, you could have sent your census form in.

I know you have been avoiding me. Despite my "official credential card," you are concerned about me being around your children and pets.

The numerator is watching you.

And when you do choose to trouble yourself with answering the door, you actually invite me into your home. I see your goods and the filthy way you live your life — a discarded letter from your mother, your lover's drawers playfully hanging on the back of a tilted chair, and that bag of pot tightly rolled on top of a dirty-white plastic coffee table next to a dried stream of Carlo Rossi Vintage Red.

You are assigned the long form; it is equipped with 59 questions about your income, home and mental health — as of April 1. "Because of a physical, mental, or emotional condition lasting six months or more, do you have any difficulty in doing any of the following activities: Learning, remembering, or concentrating?" I ask about your income - "Report even small amounts credited to an account." And you give me the same look that you give the DMV clerk when she asks you to confirm that the 1996 Ford you now are registering was bought for $100. You lie to me.

And I learn how many bedrooms you share with your alleged roommate, and whether or not meals are "included." If you own your house, I carefully inscribe in my book how much your mortgage payment is every month, and how much your second mortgage payment is, too. Although all this is confidential, and will only be made available through statistical data, you still worry. The government may be checking its list twice. But you are not that important; nobody cares about you that much, not the government, not even me.

Well, there was that little incident back in World War II when, according to statistician and demographer William Seltzer and history professor Margo Anderson, the Census Bureau provided detailed information to the War Department about where to find Japanese Americans for their relocation program. But don't worry. We probably won't do this again, unless there is some sort of reoccurring terrorist problem, say, with an extreme faction of Islamic fundamentalists, or other potentially anti-American group that can be labeled and located through its ethnicity.

Still, the government needs to know about you to decide where to distribute its largess. Local governments use census data in order to determine where to build schools. Think about it: Without the blind justice that census data has provided in past decades, funds for newly constructed schools could have wound up going to only affluent neighborhoods. The census will help the elderly, the disabled, the uneducated, today's troubled youth and puppies starving on the street on a cold wintry night. What are you waiting for?

But wait, there's more: It's your civic duty. Census Bureau Director, Kenneth Prewitt, praised those Americans who turned in their census forms while somewhat indirectly chastising the remaining nonrespondents by noting, "They treated the census as the serious civic event intended by the founders when in 1787 they wrote the Census into the Constitution."

Our forefathers must have also known the importance of keeping the feeding trough close to the stable as well. According to the Nonresponse Followup Enumerator Manual, "Businesses use census statistics to: Forecast future demand for productsDetermine sites for new businessesDetermine whether businesses are employing a representative work force."

Census data doesn't just tell the government where to spend our money, the information helps us find easy-to-use essentials and all-in-one convenience a little closer to home. (And employees and mall-ites will rest easier knowing that, as indicated above, businesses will determine whether businesses are employing a representative work force.)

But perhaps I am just repeating what you have already heard while sitting before the pulpit. The Census 2000 Web site provided an information packet online for religious leaders to use during their weekly services from March 19 to April 30. "Five reasons to fill out the census to be read during service, week of March 26, 2000…[Number 4] The census numbers help industry locate potential markets, and businesses are better able to produce the products and services you want."

In all fairness, I am sure this data will only be used to help businesses supply essentials you need, not want, like SUVs, global positioning systems for the desk-jock, and malt liquor for the rest of us. Nonetheless, I wonder if God got more pissed about having the state in his church, than receiving the long form.

So while Democrats and Republicans brawl over the possibility of using sample data when redrawing state and congressional district boundaries, and the rest of us puzzle over indistinguishable terms such as "sample-enhanced data" and "sample-adjusted data," I doubt mall developers and billboard advertisers will get lost in the statistics.

Welcome to the ranch where the head count counts, and we make it your way, right away. At the Bureau of Census, we get I.T. done. But please don't forget to leave the light on.

Kevin Finucane is a writer who lives in Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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