Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Quick and Easy

The second sentence on the US Census form, and one that most people will probably skip right over, says "It is quick and easy, and your answers are protected by law." For me to fill out this form will, in fact, be both quick and easy. I live alone, and I can comfortably answer, for Question 8, "No, not of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin" and then for Question 9, "White" - not everyone has such form completion luxuries. I can't figure out who (or what) my answers are being lawfully protected from, but that sounds fine.

Each Wednesday evening, for about 10 months now, I have taught English to a class of adults (funny, interesting, complicated adults) at a learning center operated by the Minnesota Literacy Council (MLC). Between 5 and 15 students show up each time (they commit to attending two hours of class, four nights a week, and this is on top of jobs that often require a more than eight-hour-a-day commitment, and family responsibilities). Tonight, I decided that day 7 of 12 in the health unit (symptoms, body parts, and how to make a doctor's appointment) could be swapped out for another reality based unit: the US Census, why it's important, and how to complete it.

I received my Census form in the mail this afternoon. As I mentioned earlier, it will take me all of 2 minutes to complete, and that's if I read the first section about how I shouldn't count any relatives that are living away from home, in an institution (jail, college, or the Armed Forces), or at a nursing home. It took my students that long to sort out (in a general way) who the US Department of Commerce is, and why their Economics and Statistics Administration is sending this form to every home in the country. This information is in fine print at the top right-hand corner. I bet you didn't notice it on your form.

I learned this evening that my students, who tested into "High Beginner, Low Intermediate English Class" at the MLC, and who have jobs, pay taxes, and send their children to American schools, knew of the Census, but didn't know much about the Census. One woman told me that she had completed her Census form carefully and thoroughly, but was told by her coworkers that she was crazy, and that she shouldn't send it in - she cleans planes at the airport, and specified that her opinionated coworkers are "American and not American." Another woman arrived at class concerned that she had thrown out her Census form but now wants to complete it, and anxiously wrote down the number I gave her (which was on the back of my Census form) in hopes of requesting another one. Yet another woman proudly produced the empty Census envelope out of her purse, though she had left the form itself at home for safe keeping.

Before we even looked at the form, I introduced the big picture concept: the United States, tries, every 10 years, to pick a day and count everyone. This thought received a round of laughter from the 12 students in attendance, who began to consider the size of such a challenge. We talked about how schools, hospitals, roads, and even English class, receive funding from the government based partially on how many people they think live in that community. We discussed the fact that the Census Bureau can not legally share this information with anyone, anyone at all, but that struck some students as hard to believe. As I saw the doubt on their faces, I too found it a little hard to believe.

So we started at the top of this form, and we began to read through. The guidelines that are offered make the whole thing seem quite complicated, actually, and so I kept returning to the original idea that the government is actually just trying to count everyone. Once.

I was asked, among other things:
- Should I count my son's child, who is living in a foster home now? No.
- Should I count my daughter, who is currently in Mexico on a trip, but usually lives with me, and will be back shortly? Yes.
- Should she count her baby? (this from a woman sitting next to the visibly pregnant woman she was referring to) No, not if the baby isn't born yet on April 1.
- Should I count my son if he is in jail? (this was posed as a hypothetical question) No, he will be counted by the jail.

After all the time we dedicated to these guidelines, we were pleased to discover that the whole purpose of Question 2 is to confirm that you read the guidelines and answered Question 1 correctly: how many people were living or staying in this house, apartment, or mobile home on April 1, 2010. A number of students indicated that life isn't terribly predictable, and so they'll wait until April 1 to complete the form. One woman suggested that it wasn't very clever of the government to pick April Fool's Day as the one time, after 10 years, to count people. She has a good point.

Questions 3-7 were simple, and had obvious answers. Rather than tell you what these questions are, I encourage you to keep an eye out for your Census form. Be counted!

Question 8 asks if the person in question is "of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin" - and for about half of my students (and myself), that was an easy "No" - for the other half of my students, they were then faced with a variety of "Yes" options, most of which tied this same person in question to a nationality as well. One student discovered that he'd have to select the 4th "yes" - "Yes, another Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin" and then take the "print your origin" option, to fill in "Guatemalan" in the space provided.

Then came Question 9, which asks, straightforwardly enough, "What is Person 1's race?" (it was noted earlier on the form that Questions 8 and 9 are both to be answered, as "For this census, Hispanic origins are not races.") The members of my class who had just searched for which "yes" they should select on Question 8 looked at the form, looked at me, and asked what I suggested that they do. They could pick, as one student pointed out, "White, Black, or Chinese...." (in fact, lots of specific Asian nationalities were deemed to represent a race of people, as determined by this census), but that if you did, in fact, identify as Latino.... you had to select "Some other race", and then "print race" in the space provided. The Hmong students learned that for these purposes, they should check the box "Other Asian" and then "print race" of Hmong (which was one of the examples provided as an "other Asian race"). This series of discoveries motivated me to make an impromptu speech about how forms sometimes try to put us all in a particular list, but that humans are rather more complicated than that, and that I understood if they were stumped by Questions 8 and 9. I encouraged them to use the short answer spaces liberally.

Then came the extra persons. Is person 2 related to person 1 as a boarder or a roommate? An in-law or an "other relative"? What about person 3? And person 4? One student offered that his brother (person 3) and his wife (person 4) live in his basement as boarders. I suggested that person 3 be listed as a brother, rather than a boarder... and that he could pick, for person 4... other relative, boarder, or other nonrelative. I acknowledged that none of those options seemed quite right for his circumstance, as sister-in-law was not one of the in-law options that was provided.

This is when someone piped up to ask what happens if you have, in your household, more than the 12 people for which space is allotted, and someone else suggested that if you called the number I had written on the board earlier, the government would surely send a supplemental form. After all, the goal is to count everyone, right? Right. And that is why I spent an hour and a half of my life this evening explaining the US Census to 12 individuals, and encouraging them to have patience with this imperfect, frustrating, complicated, and entirely necessary form that they received from the US Government.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this. I also work for MLC and have been talking about this with our students. I was also confused by the question of race.... especially for the Latino students....