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Census: It’s important to be counted

She wasn’t selling anything.

But again and again those who answered their doors – and then slammed them shut – mistook the U.S. census worker for someone hawking grub, a political candidate or eternal salvation.

“I am finding that many people who are refusing to do it seem to think it is a sales call or know nothing about what it is, especially younger people,” she told me. “Some people, like everything else, have made it political. But what I came home most disturbed about was that I was told by residents, especially younger ones, that they were OK, they didn’t need anything, as if I was peddling products.”

And those were the nicer folks.

One man told her he refused to answer census questions because he didn’t want New Mexico to have another representative in Congress. Another ran off another census worker with a shotgun.

Another census worker, who like the others is not allowed to identify herself under federal regulations, said her biggest challenge is getting close enough to a front door to knock on in the rural areas she covers.

“I am encountering mostly locked gates, so I have to leave a notice of visit on the gate,” she said. “I have only been able to speak with a handful of residents. I have been shooed off by a few. And I have come across signs on properties saying, ‘There will be no warning shots.’ My experience is certainly not like the TV commercial.”

Why is this so hard, people?

The census, which winds down in less than three weeks, requires about 10 minutes of your time every 10 years for what amounts to tens of billions of dollars annually in federal funding. In New Mexico, that includes more than $3 billion for schools, food programs, firefighters and first responders, roads, health care, housing, and other programs for the next 10 years.

In addition, the census count determines congressional districting and how many U.S. representatives each state sends to Washington, D.C. In 1982, for example, New Mexico added a third congressional seat based on the 1980 census.

But for the census to count, we have to be counted.

Many of us did our simple, safe civic duty back in March when U.S. census forms were mailed out. Yet by August only 54% of New Mexico households had responded to the census, about 10 percentage points lower than the national average and the second-worst rate in the country.

Last week, New Mexico’s self-responded percentage has inched up ever so slightly to a still pathetic 56.5%, now the third-worst in the country. In Bernalillo County, the rate is better – 69.3%.

Now with census workers knocking on doors and helping citizens complete the questions, New Mexico’s “enumeration” rate has risen to 82.8%, which is better but still below the national average of 89.4%.

Part of the reason for the state’s struggles is that New Mexico is considered the top hard-to-count state, with an estimated 43% of its population living in rural and isolated areas with poor road access and unreliable internet.

“I’ve lived here 30 years, and I can’t believe how far back some of these roads go,” said one census worker assigned to a remote mountain area. “I have been on many roads in two days that I didn’t even know existed.”

Hard-to-count states such as New Mexico also tend to be inhabited by folks wary of big government and Big Brother.

“So many people have become anti-government or leery of anything government they don’t want to answer questions,” she said. “I don’t think the (U.S. census) ads reassure people enough that their info will remain private. All Census Bureau employees swear an oath to keep any personal information confidential for life. Breaking that confidentiality is grounds for five years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines. Personal information is not shared with any other organization.”

Census questions involve how many people live in the home, their names, age, sex, race and whether the residence is owned or rented. There are no questions involving citizenship status.

Skeptical citizens can request even greater anonymity if they choose, the census worker said.

“The most important question is about how many people lived at their residence on April 1, 2020,” she said. “If people don’t want to answer any other question, they don’t have to. If they’re OK with answering the other questions but want to remain anonymous, they can. They can use a nickname, first name only or be listed as Person 1.”

See? Simple and safe.

The U.S. census has been conducted every 10 years as mandated under the Constitution since 1790, and, yes, it hasn’t always been without controversy. In 1940, one senator criticized the census for using “Hitler tactics” for asking about income. In 1960, eyebrows were raised over a question about indoor plumbing.

Divisiveness in the country has also seeped into this year’s census.

“I come home wondering, how on earth did Americans become so ignorant or stupid about our country?” one census worker said. “I was very disheartened that something that has been done since the 1700s has been politicized and that some have no idea what it is for.”

These days, she tells surly folks on her route that she participates in the census because it is her civic duty as an American citizen.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes not.

“I would say that more than half are compliant,” she said.

“Those who do know what it’s about will say, ‘Thank you for doing this.’ They are aware that it brings money for our state.”

The key, she believes, is reminding people of the importance of being counted to be represented.

“I am hopeful that if people are more aware of how our country is supposed to work, our real patriotism as Americans will begin to spark a unity,” she said.

In the meantime, please be nice to these brave census souls. They have until Sept. 30 to complete their work on your behalf. I hope we can count on you.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, jkrueger@abqjournal.com, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.

BE COUNTED

You don’t have to wait for a census worker to show up on your doorstep. The U.S. census can be completed at 2020census.gov or by calling 844-330-2020 or in Spanish 844-468-2020. Deadline is Sept. 30.

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