When your census taker smells like booze

After some delays caused by the plague, the nation’s army of temporary census workers has taken to the streets in an effort to get everyone counted in an orderly fashion. But according to a report out this week from the Associated Press, things aren’t going very well. They spoke to a number of workers who are going door-to-door and found that the response from the public has been luke-warm at best when compared to previous decades. People in many areas are refusing to answer some or all of the questions and, in at least some cases, refusing to answer the doors at all. The workers are attributing this to a combination of factors including concerns over the virus, a general distrust of government, and, for at least one region, issues with the hand sanitizer being given to the enumerators smelling like bourbon.

Out on her first day of knocking on doors in the San Francisco Bay Area, the census taker had limited success getting people to answer the questions on the 2020 census.

Residents at only two homes answered all the questions about how many people lived there, what their relationships were and their sex, age, race and whether they’re Hispanic. No one was home at three households, residents at two homes wouldn’t give her the time of day, and the rest only answered some questions.

Workers on the front-lines of the massive effort trying to count everyone in the U.S. have faced unprecedented obstacles in the last phase of the 2020 census: people wary of talking to strangers in a pandemic and distrustful of government; a shortened schedule; administrative snafus, and nagging concerns about the quality of the protective equipment they’ve received.

Giving out hand sanitizer to the enumerators under the current conditions is an obvious requirement. But the choice of ordering “bourbon-scented hand sanitizer” made by a distillery in Oklahoma seems a bit odd. You can understand the company manufacturing the product wanting to stay on brand and add such a scent to the product, and for home use, that’s probably fine. (Heck, I’d certainly be willing to give it a try.) But when you’re going out to deal with the public or even showing up for a meeting with your boss, do you really want to walk up to them smelling of Jim Beam?

With that in mind, the response from some members of the public is probably understandable. Even knowing that there’s a pandemic sweeping the world, if a person wearing a mask and reeking of whiskey shows up at your door and begins asking you very personal questions, how are you supposed to feel? We can sympathize with the enumerators here because they’re just trying to do their jobs, but somebody at the Census Bureau seems to have really dropped the ball on this one.

The more alarming issue here is the number of people who are slamming the doors or refusing to finish the census because they don’t trust the government with their information. This is understandable if you’re in the country illegally (and for good reason), but for regular citizens to refuse to participate for that reason is disconcerting. Still, we probably should have anticipated this. While this year’s Pew polling showed a surprising increase in trust in both state and local government based on how the pandemic is being handled, trust in the federal government remains dismal. If this translates into far fewer citizens completing the census it will skew the alignment of congressional districts for the next decade, as well as having an impact on the allocation of federal funding.

Refusing to complete the census is still technically against the law. Noncompliant people can be fined $100 for refusing to answer one or more of the questions or $500 for lying about your answers. In some cases, the fine can reach $2,500, but the Census Bureau describes that as a “course of last resort.” But nobody has been prosecuted under those laws since Jimmy Carter was in office. If there is widespread refusal in some areas, will the government really just start rounding people up, taking them to court and fining them? I suppose it’s possible, but it seems unlikely in the extreme.