Be counted or else.

June 4, 2009

Morning Edition is talking today about the usual troubles the census goes through to get everyone counted. Apparently just about everyone in NYC belongs to one of those groups least likely to return a census form: young and single, immigrant, or African American. Apparently Hispanics are an exception to the immigrant trend for whatever reason. One of the suggested reasons for immigrants not returning census forms is their being unaware of what a census is. Is that really possible? While I’m sure that some of the states which haven’t had a functioning government in decades might miss out on the fun, I’m not personally aware of any country without a census.

Actually, I assume that in most countries it’s more important than it is here. Much of the developing world uses some form of representational quotas to fill their legislative bodies and apportion cabinet positions. The result of that could be that it’s more contentious or that it’s more corrupt, but either way everyone has a stake in making the census prominent in the national consciousness.

I was in Turkey for census day in 1997. Not having any advanced warning, that was the day we had chosen to get back overland from Trabzon to Istanbul, via Giresun. This was made nearly impossible by the fact that every 50 yards or so across the entire country there was someone dressed like this demanding papers of everyone on the street:

Turkish Police

Apparently no one is allowed to leave their homes on census day unless they have advanced parole. The dolmuşes  (shared taxis—yeah, I’m sure that plural should be made with a ‘lu’, but you get the idea) were getting stopped constantly and everyone had to show their permission slips. It was only in Giresun that we finally found an English paper that explained what was going on. (No one on the Black Sea coast seems to speak English and either I couldn’t figure out what Volkszählung meant or they were using something else to describe it in German—everyone in Turkey speaks German, while I only pretend to—or they were using some other phrase to describe it. I’m guessing the latter because the word seems pretty obvious 12 years later and in writing.)

I just wonder what sort of effect that type of experience has on people—would they be more or less likely to return a US census form? Would it have to do with fear of the census or the need for serious encouragement to actually bother with it?

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