Let me tell you about my newest close personal friend, Ken Prewitt. Kenny and I have been corresponding by mail for a few weeks now.
Kenny is the director of the Bureau of the Census. He started our pen pal relationship when he dropped me a note to alert me that very soon he’d be sending me a list of questions that he’d like me to answer. I was busy that week, so I didn’t have a chance to get back to him telling him how much I was looking forward to revealing myself to him.
Nevertheless, seven days later I got a packet with Ken’s return address on it, and wow, am I excited — even if he does insist on calling me by my showbiz name, “Resident.” I’m sitting down right now to put pen to paper to answer Kenny’s questions, and I’m a little surprised that they’re so personal.
I know that the Constitution mandates that every decade there be a count of how many of us there are in America and where we live. But I just checked my home version of the Constitution, and nowhere in there does it say that I have to report how many toilets I have. What makes that information vital to the operation of the republic? What, do they think I snuck in one of those Canadian models that really gives a good solid flush while they weren’t looking? Do I count the one that keeps overflowing ever since my daughter tried to flush an entire roll of Cottonelle, and the one that mysteriously refills its own tank every few nights, scaring the hell out of the guinea pigs?
Let’s move on to more of this important info Kenny needs. He wants to know what time I leave for work and how long it takes me to get there. I suppose that’s so the burglary division of the bureau knows what the best time is to begin the break-in procedure at my place. It can be so difficult burglarizing a whole neighborhood, so you really have to coordinate the chronology carefully.
The government argues that they need all this data so they can plan for things like highway expansion in heavily traveled areas. Now, they’ve been asking these kinds of questions on the census for many decades. Have you ever seen them widen the roads before the crush of cars got bad? Of course not. If they were really concerned with that, they would just ask some local leaders and developers in each area to keep an eye on suburban sprawl and then strategize accordingly. But this census info isn’t collated and analyzed for four to five years, by which time the information is so outdated that it’s useless to any urban planner. And as soon as they release the results, they go right back to work coming up with the questions for the next census!
Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem telling them how many people live here — let’s see, there’s me, my wife, my daughter, my adopted Cuban son Elian, and my ex-wife Darva — and our ages, genders, marital status (I put down “fluid” for Darva) and favorite flavors of frozen custard.
I don’t even recoil at the race question, although I bet Johnnie Cochran doesn’t answer that one.
Speaking of race, whatever happened to “Caucasian”? The majestic history of the people of the great nation of Caucasia has been tossed aside for some reason, replaced only in the racial designation box by “White.” Meanwhile, the next option is what looks to be a field entry, “Black/African-American/Negro.” Then there are several other choices, including “American Indian,” “Alaska Native,” and “Chamorro,” which is only to be marked by that dog in the Taco Bell commercials.
I notice there’s no space to write in the correct answer: “human.”
It doesn’t say anywhere on the form what happens if you don’t fill it out and send it back, but the reality is that the government has hired a half-million people – that’s 500,000 people who want to work but don’t have the skills to get a job making fries at McDonald’s — who will simultaneously knock on your door and ring your bell until you spew forth the information they want. If you still won’t answer, they can fine you $100. And if that’s not bad enough, they also keep asking, “Is that your final answer?” until you run into the street admitting that you’re not Guamanian and you don’t live with the McCaughey septuplets.
Here’s where it gets curious, though. If you answer the questions falsely, you can be fined up to $500. But, if they know your answer is false, that means they already know the correct answer. So then why did they have to ask you in the first place? Because they want to catch you in rhetorical hell — like when the state trooper pulls you over and asks, “Do you know how fast you were going?” Forget it, you’re screwed.
Today there was a report that the national census return rate is only 49%, again begging the question, “How do they know?” If they already know how many of us there are, what’s with all the paperwork?
It’s all about paperwork and redundancy and bureaucracy and redundancy.
“Has this person ever served on active duty in the US Armed Forces?” Gee, I’m pretty sure that information is already available in a tiny unmarked federal building — The Pentagon! Why not put someone in a car at the census bureau and have them drive over to Arlington to get that information on a zip disk?
While they’re at it, what’s with the questions about income? Don’t we already provide that info to the government on another set of forms at this time of year? Okay, stop number two for the car is the IRS building to pick up some more data. C’mon, boys and girls, you can share, can’t you?
Stop number three is going to be the Labor Department, which can provide some answers to the next set of queries, which asks whether each of us worked last week, when we last worked, when we last vacationed, what brand of sunscreen we used, whether we consider watching spring break on MTV to be a vacation or just a soft-core thrill, and would we like some information on a lovely beachfront time share in Key West.
“Do you have a telephone?” Yes, but I only use it to accept calls at dinnertime from telemarketers, many of whom already have the information you’re making me provide to you — I wonder where they got it?
“Do you have a kitchen?” Yes, but in college I illegally used a hot plate in my dorm room and I hope you won’t hold that against me. Then again, if college violations were punishable retroactively, we’d all be sharing a cell with Robert Downey Jr., wouldn’t we?
“Do you know where the first aid kit is? Because that looks like a nasty paper cut.”
Okay, done. Now, I’ll send this off to my personal pal, Kenny Prewitt. I’m sure he’ll be glad to hear from me. But I bet I don’t hear from him again for about ten years.