Finding the Hidden Story of America in the 2020 Census

Benjamin Morris Reveals Life as an Enumerator

Under federal law, census takers must swear a lifetime oath to never reveal respondents’ personal information. To that end, while the city described remains New Orleans, this essay has falsified every name and address herein. Everything else is true.

*

A quiet duplex on Voisin Street, its windows clouded, its roof sagging. I knock, shave-and-a-haircut. No answer. I try the other door. Mid-summer, and the sweat crawls down my back, coats my palms, smears my badge each time I lift it in greeting. I knock again, then move next door. A neighbor says that a man and his mother live in the house in question, but that they don’t answer the door “for anybody.” Does he know their names? He’s unsure. Gerald, maybe? Gerald’s mother, he has no idea.

According to protocol, this is enough to mark a household complete, but I can do better—or so I think. I visit another house, and another, but no one knows anything further. At one point while across the street, I even see Gerald—who looks like John Bolton—step onto the porch, sniff the air in my direction, then vanish back inside. Quickly I run over and knock again.

Silence.

Later that week, I’m at a two-story Italianate on Bienville. Littering the porch are a dozen Notices of Visit, the forms we leave when trying to reach a resident, trashed like takeout menus. I knock, but no luck; upstairs, Rebekah comes to the door. Holding her newborn, she says that the lower unit is full of students, but that’s all she knows. They’d been there for years, but she only knew one name, had no contacts, no way to reach them at all.

Time and again I have this conversation—rather, the lack thereof. This time last year I worked nearly every day for the Census Bureau in New Orleans, going door-to-door as an enumerator, and if the distrust, suspicion, and isolation I saw in one of the friendliest cities in America was any indication, then I believe we have good reason to fear for our democracy. Where historically isolationism meant distancing ourselves from problems overseas, today we cut ourselves off from our own neighborhoods. Hampered by the fear of one virus spreading through our streets, the 2020 Census was similarly plagued by the infection of a creeping ideology of anti-civic sentiment for which, like that other pathogen, I fear no direct cure is yet in sight.

For the enumerator, every house is a story. Even homes with no trace of human activity, whose blinds are drawn but whose floorboards betray hidden footfalls.

The census faced challenges both at its outset, with the controversial “citizenship question” and at its end, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Trump administration to curtail the count, despite claims that such a move would lead to inaccuracy and incompleteness. Which it did. I can take you past dozens of houses that I know went unrecorded—they were my houses, in my district, on my case list.

Why am I writing this? Not just because the Census is back in the news, with redistricting now taking place across the country. Nor to expose the inner workings of the Bureau, an institution whose mission I have long revered. Rather, I write because I believe the challenges the Bureau faces are not, in fact, about the science of data collection but are instead about storytelling, about the effort to tell the story of America that Americans themselves cannot tell. The effort to compose a pointillist painting of three hundred and thirty-one million dots. 

*

Their door is light green, cheerful, with a wreath. I knock, and Bernard appears. I introduce myself, show him my badge, he laughs. We sit on his porch and complete the interview with ease.

This scenario is the ideal: Bernard laughs at my introduction because he’s my next-door neighbor, and we see each other every day. He had simply forgotten to fill out his questionnaire, and thanked me for tracking him down. For this reason the Bureau starts its enumerators in their own neighborhoods, relying on just that rapport. In my first days I meet dozens of local families, many of whom are willing to help out, even in the oppressive heat.

Soon, though, the dynamic changes. Despite switching our stilted script into a more natural cadence, resistance creeps in. On Pontalba Street, I see a white teenager biking up a driveway. I ask him if the three-story house is his, if his parents are home. Shortly thereafter Melinda—well-dressed, expensive hair—comes to the door, and I show her my badge. Instantly her face tightens, like she’d just swallowed a rotten Kalamata olive. I explain that this house has yet to be counted, that the survey will only take a few minutes, but none of my explanations help. “If my son hadn’t said it was illegal to lie, I’d make up some bullshit so you’d go away,” she says. “Do I have to do this?”

I’ve had better beginnings. Our conflict-mitigation techniques barely mollify her; angry, impatient for me to leave, she agrees, and I speed through the interview as quickly as possible. It’s not until I press the “complete” button that she breathes a sigh of relief. She doesn’t apologize. Doesn’t say goodbye. Rather, when I thank her for her time, she grits her teeth and disappears back inside.

How do you explain to people who don’t want to be counted that being counted only brings them good things? Studies have found that inclusion in the census yields around $2,200 in federal funding for every individual counted—for Melinda’s household of five, that means an apportionment of eleven grand. For the schools they attend, the clinics they visit. How can the Bureau convey to hostile citizens that they already receive these resources, whether they know it—or like it—or not?

This lack of public understanding of its work is a critical problem for the Bureau, and it’s hard to say how effective its efforts at education have been. For a young, first-time participant, some ignorance is understandable, but for folks with three or four censuses notched on their belt? Too many doors were shut in our faces—or never opened at all—not to ask. Nor is the problem unique to the Bureau: if we as a people do not understand what we have to offer one another, then how can we work towards that more perfect union?

Here in New Orleans, I did find one way. In Louisiana’s floodplain, unstable soil yields unpredictable roads; our potholes unite us as much as our beloved Saints. You like your street, sir? I’d ask someone living on a cratered lane. Then be counted, help us get more money from the fed. The reverse worked too: Enjoying your fresh tarmac, ma’am? Guess who helped pay for that.

Fill out your damn census.

*

One of the intrigues of census work is traveling to places you would never otherwise visit, like the interviewer Morgan Rainey in Robert Stone’s great New Orleans novel A Hall of Mirrors. You never know who will answer the knock. In Louisiana, you meet musicians, chefs, folks who give you recipes before they give you their name. In a single day, I’ve stood under a billionaire’s marble portico and on a rotting balcony so crammed with broken appliances the whole structure threatened to collapse.

For the enumerator, every house is a story. Even homes with no trace of human activity, whose blinds are drawn but whose floorboards betray hidden footfalls. I loved this aspect of the work, chasing down clues and sleuthing them out to complete a case. Piecing together the scraps of narrative fabric from a property’s neighbors or architecture or surroundings makes you feel on par with Inspector Poirot.

Yet ambiguities and skews hound us at every turn. Some properties are so poorly kept that you can’t tell whether it’s empty or just in disrepair. On Hawthorne Place, looking for a missing house, I first approached a local bar (shuttered), an insurance agent (barricaded against COVID), and a landscaper (unmarked) before learning that the lost house had been in the alley separating the landscapers from the bar. The street numbering was obsolete; it was only through shoe leather, persuasion, and deduction that I could crack the case—all for a demolished residence, an empty data point.

On Kenilworth, a brick house eluded me for weeks until I met an older Cajun man who offered its population as one itinerant young man. With him as proxy, I marked it as completed—but something bugged me. It wasn’t until a month later, back in the area, that I learned the truth: that the mystery house was owned by a church, and the occupant was its maintenance attendant. Naturally I contacted my supervisor with the correction, but it struck me: the old gentleman was not wrong in what he had seen but in how he had interpreted it—and absent my return, his faulty reading would have been recorded as fact, distorting neighborhood density for the next decade.

A skew of one house may be minor, but if found in every neighborhood, in every city in the county? Equally concerning is an issue new to recent censuses. In previous years, even after Hurricane Katrina, homes were more likely to be owner-occupied than they are now; today, short-term rentals have invaded the city like a silent army of ghosts. With long-time, often-minority tenants priced out of the market—in my old apartment on Dumaine Street I watched my Black neighbors vanish one by one over eight years—the human fabric of our neighborhoods has been rent with alarming speed.

Michelle, one of my respondents in the Tremé neighborhood, said she no longer knows anyone on her block, as every last house is now an Airbnb. For the Bureau, this data is neutral, yet for locals, it’s anything but: Michelle no longer has neighbors, only “guests.” Worse still, because STRs function as hotel rooms, enumerators must record them as vacant. Thousands of new STRs across the country—how have our historic neighborhoods changed, and what will they lose in federal funding over the next decade?

“I want to find out about humanness,” Rainey said of his work. “What it is. Where mine is at and how I can keep it there when I find out. … I’d like to find out what’s the difference between a street with people on it and a street where there aren’t any people.”

I imagine Michelle could tell him.

*

Data issues have always affected the Bureau’s efforts to tell the American story. But today? Increasingly, Americans are flat refusing to tell their own. In my months at the Bureau, nothing struck me more than the stark divide between people who seem to believe there is something to gain from civic process and people who don’t. Without exception, I received greater hostility in the wealthiest neighborhoods in New Orleans than in any of its so-called “broken,” low-income ones. Day in, day out, more affluent white folks shut the door in my face than any other demographic, hands-down.

It was in fancy Audubon where I met the white Porsche owner who bellowed at me to fuck off. And in tony Lake Vista where Melinda above said to my face she’d rather lie. And on ivy-lined Marguerite Lane that a white lady first blew me off, then ghosted me, then finally “had no time” because she “had the kids for a sleepover”—teenagers who seemed to be nowhere nearby. Or—my favorite—a white lady who, reached over the phone, told me she was too busy playing dominoes. Driving into these posh neighborhoods, with their privacy walls and Audis in the drive, I almost came to dread knocking on their doors, knowing how fruitless it could be.

By contrast, in poor Hollygrove, African-American, Creole, and Latinx families welcomed me in, shared their lives with warmth and generosity, helped me find missing properties or elusive neighbors. Time and again I saw Black and brown faces brighten at the mention of my purpose; I will never forget the radiance on a Black teenager’s face on Apple Street as she answered the questionnaire for her household, her mother praising her, her little sister looking up in adoration and awe.

Distrust and isolation are not, of course, bound by class or race. One afternoon in Hollygrove I’m sent to a housing complex built out of cinder blocks and plywood, probably thrown up after Katrina. I knock on Apartment G, and a young Black man comes down, wearing a gamer’s headset. I introduce myself, offer my spiel. He chuckles, then disappears back upstairs.

Looking around, I see an older Black woman at a nearby pavilion with her grandchild. Ms. Felicia is in her fifties, gaunt, smokes like a chimney, curses like a sailor, bears full sleeves of ink up each arm and laced around her collarbone. Historically, considering the way that Black folks have been treated in New Orleans—particularly their dismissal by authorities during and after Katrina—you’d think Ms. Felicia might not have time for a clean-cut white guy working for the Fed.

And yet. At my first mention of the Census she lights right up. “Filled mine out soon as I got it,” she exclaims. “Sent that shit right back in!” I ask for help with Apartment G. “I been telling them to fill they census out too,” she says. “Been telling them every month.”

She tells me to pound on the door and jam the doorbell. I do—and a boy of nine or ten comes down, stares past me while I repeat my request. I switch to patois, reassure him that the Bureau ain’t the cops, that we’re just trying to hook the neighborhood up with extra money. Eventually he just giggles and saunters back up too.

“That’s who they send when they don’t wanna talk to nobody,” Ms. Felicia says. “That’s they scout. You ain’t getting’ nothing out of them.” She shares their demography as best she knows it. It’s not ideal, but it’s enough to close the case by proxy.

“Stupid fucking asses,” she sighs. “Been telling them but they won’t listen. You gotta get counted. Ain’t gotta tell me. I been knowin’, baby. Been knowin’ for years.”

*

At every house, I could not help but wonder: what will the knock mean this time? A year later, not a week goes by I don’t think about Ms. Felicia, wonder how she and her grandbaby are doing. Wonder if Michelle ever gained any neighbors, or if she still lives alone on her street, marooned in a sea of AirBnBs.

The names may fade, but the penumbra of the affect lingers, the brief intimacy that you establish on a porch. Each of these souls only enters your life for a moment—not as data, but as people. It’s what in her poem “Insomnia” Elizabeth Bishop called “the truth inverted”: the true privilege of the census taker is that you enter your respondents’ lives, not the other way around. Then at the end of the interview you thank them, the door clicks shut, and they’re gone.

So long as the Census Bureau portrays its work as a data collection exercise, that exercise will fail, no matter how many numbers they glean. So long as respondents view the Bureau as taking something from them, their doors and their lives will remain closed. But if the Bureau can revive the idea of America as a story, as we the people telling our own story, then that exercise may yet flourish. That pointillist canvas, stretching from coast to coast? The Bureau may wield the brush, but we must lend it our paint.

As a writer I often wondered what narrative genre occupied the Bureau’s work: historical epic, exploration diary, police procedural, detective novel. Threads of all these form its fabric, but perhaps more than any other, its true genre is classical romance, where the knock on the door is the lover seeking the beloved, saying, I wish to see you. Saying, having seen you, I can care more fully for you. Every decade, this romance begins anew: each knock a will-they-won’t-they, less an exclamation mark than a question.

The Census tells a story that we cannot fully tell ourselves, a story told across past, present, and future.

Nothing captured this aspect better than one of the last houses I visited, in the waning days of the count. The house lay in a cul-de-sac off Rosemary Place, its front door atop a long flight of stairs, and of the thousands of houses I visited was the one door on which I could not knock—because, unusually, it was already open.

The street was empty. I rang the doorbell. Nothing. Called inside. The back gate was ajar, as though someone had left in a hurry. The door itself was barely cracked—from a distance, no one would be able to tell. Worried that I had stumbled onto the aftermath of a burglary or worse, I backpedaled and called my supervisor. “What does your gut say?” she asked. While an innocent mistake was possible, she understood the concern: making house calls as a social worker, she had walked in on corpses. “Call it in,” I replied. “Just in case.”

I met the police at the corner. Taking my account, they walked down the street, hands on their holsters, disappearing down the drive. Odd as it was, and unexpected, I will never forget the feeling of waiting for them to return. The house on Rosemary suddenly became emblematic of them all: we knock, we wait, we hope. We search for the souls inside, we seek help, we wait longer. And sometimes, left to end an autumn evening in wonder, we never learn the answer.

So how can we rekindle this romance? That desire to be counted, to have one’s thread woven into our national tapestry? To begin, first we must address its opposite: the desire to remain isolated, aloof, a presence assumed but only imputed by statistical wizardry. The desire held by Gerald, Melinda, and the rest to live on Morgan Rainey’s “street where there ain’t any people.” To remain citizens of a country whose national flag is a pure white square.

How we do this I don’t fully know, but I do believe the answer has to start with story. Every house is a story, yes, but zoom the lens out through time and space, and the Census tells a story that we cannot fully tell ourselves, a story told across past, present, and future. Without census data, I never would have learned that my ancestors in early Mississippi owned slaves—every other record in our family had been lost. Without the Census, we the people—we the people!—literally do not know who we are.

Borges once wrote that the only accurate map of the territory was the territory itself: if, looking over my field notes, I feel a sense of gratitude for those who shared their lives with me, I feel a sharper pang at seeing the fragments that I was almost able to finish, the pieces of a house that were just taking shape when our count was called off. There must be a word for this feeling, one not unlike nostalgia—the sting of loss for a story cut short, one that you know for a fact was never fully told.

I hope, one day, to knock on someone’s door who knows it.

Benjamin Morris
Benjamin Morris
A native of Mississippi, Benjamin Morris is the author of Coronary (Fitzgerald Letterpress, 2011), Hattiesburg, Mississippi: A History of the Hub City (Arcadia/The History Press, 2014), and Ecotone (Antenna/Press Street, 2017). His work—poetry, fiction, and nonfiction—appears in such places as The Oxford American, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Southern Review, and has received literature fellowships from the Mississippi Arts Commission, Tulane University, and A Studio in the Woods. He lives in New Orleans, where he serves as one of the coordinators for the New Orleans Poetry Festival. http://benjaminalanmorris.com.





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