Down for the count

Down for the count

Adjunct professor Bill Healey has to be New Jersey’s most dedicated census taker. Even being chased by ornery dogs didn’t dampen his resolve.

I rang the doorbell at a residence in Hunterdon County’s Kingwood Township and said, “I’m Bill Healey with the U.S. Census.” The owner shouted through his doorbell speaker, “Get off my [expletive] property.”

I signed up to be a U.S. Census taker in January 2020. The pandemic pushed things back by almost four months, so I started working the first week of August, mostly in Hunterdon County, New Jersey. The reason I had this job is because people hadn’t answered their mailed questionnaires. We were paid $21 an hour to go to those homes in hopes of getting the most accurate count of the population. I did my own census form online the day I got the mailing in March.

I do some lobbying and government affairs consulting, but mostly I’m a teacher, an adjunct in TCNJ’s political science department. I’ve taught courses in health policy, American government, and lobbying, among others. I wanted to work for the census for the sociological experience. I wanted to understand the attitudes of people living in the U.S. and their skepticism toward the census and toward government in general. But I also learned a lot about people’s lives.

I had a satchel with the big U.S. Census logo on it. Census takers, or enumerators, were required to wear that over our shoulder so people could see who we were. We also had a Census ID and an information sheet in English and Spanish to hand out. I told people their answers were confidential: “They go from your mouth to my ears and then to the app on the iPhone and into the census database.”

Still, I’m the government seeking information about you. I could see drapes closing as I approached or people who would not answer the door even though you could hear a television on or kids playing. And when they do answer the door, you know that look on somebody’s face — the look when you run into somebody who you would rather not have run into. And they say, “Oh, I’m sorry. I really don’t have time now.” And they shut the door.

The census is the federal government taking a head count of the country. We are trying to impress upon people that they have a civic duty to add their information to the census database because population size, and how mobile we are as a population, impacts what we get from the current $1 trillion in federal funding. I’d lead with that and then use U.S. congressional representation as the second most important reason.

I’ve been a Hunterdon County resident for 35 years. A gentleman I interviewed in Delaware Township had moved there from the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. After mentioning his old address, I said, “Sir, great people come from there, including my wife. She was raised 10 blocks away from you.” He was just thrilled that I knew where the Bronx was. I always tried to establish rapport because then people would be more willing to be interviewed. They felt a sense of duty: “I didn’t answer this. I’ve got to do it.”

I worked about 40 days and drove more than 2,000 miles — that’s 75% of the miles I had put on my car since March. The last couple of weeks, I was getting outreach from the census every day saying they needed enumerators to go to other states. I got an invitation to join a team traveling to Louisiana the day Hurricane Laura hit. But I didn’t leave New Jersey.

Census trainers taught us to make sure our cars were positioned toward the road before getting out, especially in rural areas with long driveways. That way if you needed to leave quickly, you could just drive away.

One Sunday afternoon, I returned to a house that another enumerator and I had been to the week before, but neither of us got a response. I remembered that poorly maintained, half-mile-long gravel driveway and parked facing the road. As I got out, I turned and saw these large, unfriendly looking dogs coming at me. I was able to get back in my car and hightail it out of there just as they were getting to my bumper. They followed me for probably 50 yards. I never saw the owners. They must have figured, Well, this is the way to get rid of the census people for good. In my field notes, I indicated that dogs came after me and immediately apprised my supervisor, which made that address off limits to all enumerators. I would see on a daily basis where others had dangerous encounters.

I also got thrown off the most magnificent horse farm in Hunterdon County. The owner said, “I don’t have time for this [expletive expletive],” hopped in her Mercedes, and drove off.

I knocked on the doors of Hunterdon horse farms like that one with views that stretched for miles and miles. Yet within a five-mile radius, I also saw some of the most horrid rental units you can imagine. My most significant takeaway was the income disparity I saw firsthand in the 15th wealthiest county in the United States, underscoring that the disparity in incomes is greater than it’s ever been in our history. Alleviating problems like this is one of the purposes of the census. It helps with the apportionment of community aid programs, healthcare resources based on demographics like age and gender, state-sponsored pre-K and Head Start education programs, and aid to rural New Jersey counties.

My best experience happened when I was interviewing two Latina mothers with limited command of the English language, but who had daughters who were bilingual — a 10 year old and an 11 year old who went to the same Flemington school district my own kids did.

I said to the 10 year old, “Could you ask your mother if I have permission for you to be my translator?” I could take a translator over the age of 15 without having to ask permission, but I had to make sure that the parent had agreed for anybody younger than that. It was just fascinating to watch my words go from the girl to her mom and answers come back from the daughter, whose newborn brother lay in their mother’s arms. The mothers were just beaming that their daughters were able to do this.

These two interviews were probably the longest I did — a normal 10-minute interview asking for the name, age, gender, ethnic origin, and race of each person at this residence became 20 minutes because of the translation. The questions started drawing a crowd of family members onto their apartment stoops, possibly because I was a curiosity. It probably would have been better to have bilingual enumerators here, which could have been planned for during the April to late-July pandemic lag time.

But in other encounters in Latino neighborhoods, my census bag could as well have said ICE. I don’t think the census did enough to assuage those fears and establish some trust to change how people perceived us. Yes, they did wonderful PSAs and advertisements, but I’m wondering how much of that actually went to Spanish-language media. I don’t want to sound overly political, but when the former president pushed for a citizenship question on the census, it did nothing to help what we were trying to do.

I go back to the adage from the late Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill — “All politics is local.” The census needs to seek out more community groups, specifically in the Latino community, because we’re going to be an even more diverse country in 2030. I would expect by then that New Jersey will become one of those states that has no white majority. We are close to being there. There are four states that no longer have that — California, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Texas.

My connection to a small slice of people in New Jersey who have no legal status here is that they came to the United States for the same reason many of our own ancestors came: to forge a better life for themselves and, in many cases, to flee oppressive regimes. My great-grandmother came here in 1880 from Germany when the Austro-Hungarian empire was in shambles from the FrancoGerman War. Hopefully, by the next census, we will have dealt rationally with immigration and given people a pathway to a legal presence here.

There was a new 2020 census question about ethnic background. If somebody were to say that they were Black, we would follow up with: “Would you share your ethnicity?” You could answer you were from Africa, from Barbados, from Bermuda. Or if you identified yourself as Caucasian, you could say you were Polish, or English, or Scottish, or multiple ethnicities. Of course, New Jersey being New Jersey, people often responded with four, five, or six.

Toward the end,we were directed to just do what we could to get a head count. On my last day, I was at a residence in Tewksbury Township that six enumerators had already been to. They had tried to get information about the residents from adjoining addresses, known as a proxy interview, but were either refused or people didn’t know their neighbors. But no one had gone to the house next door on the right side or the house directly across the street. I went to both.

At the house to the right, there was a woman playing basketball with her daughter. I showed my census ID and said, “Ma’am, we’re trying to do a proxy interview to make sure all heads are counted. Would you have information about the family that lives next door?” It looked like it would be a large family — there were kids’ toys strewn all over the place and lots of cars. “Yes, I do,” she said. “But I don’t have to give that to you.”

The gentleman across the street was helpful. “I know the family. They are from a [Caribbean country]. There’s a grandfather, a mother and father, and five kids.” If not for him, they would have been uncounted. I felt that if I did not dedicate myself fully to counting heads, then why was I there in the first place? Slacking off, compounded many times over by enumerators across the country, would really skew the reality of our population.

While out in the field, I often wore a TCNJ cap and, when it got colder, my Lions sweatshirt. I talked to lots of alumni. “I got an actual professor as an enumerator,” one said, laughing.

I’ve probably bored students to tears in my Topics in Communication Studies class talking about my experience. I gained a greater appreciation for the backgrounds of my students, which run the gamut of social and economic classes and show why diversity and inclusion efforts are so important.

I ran into a young Latina woman, a high school student probably about 17 years old. She asked me if I went to TCNJ. “In my other life, I teach there,” I said. We got into what she was interested in and she gave me her name. When I got home, I sent an email to a couple of professors about her. I try to be an apostle for TCNJ.

Photo: Peter Murphy

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