Making the Census Sexy

Now that the U.S. House of Representatives is back in relatively sane hands, we can dare look to the future. That feels like a luxury, since we’ve been scrabbling for moment to moment survival.

So there’s been the expectable debate about which priorities Democrats should address first, with some people (including, naturally, committee chairs) pushing issues that their specific committees address.

The issues are many, even just to get back to where we were before Trump and Putin stole our electoral process, and keeping in mind that the Senate is not (yet) in the people’s hands, though there are signs of some Republicans rattling their chains. Priorities? So many urgencies. Climate change policy. Immigration policy. Infrastructure needs. This time actually doing a thorough investigation into Russia’s involvement in the election, Trump’s campaign, and Trump’s regime. Investigating his tax returns. Investigating the Kavanaugh appointment. Investigating the Trump family’s violations of the Constitution’s emolument clause. Considering the numerous grounds for impeachment.

Tempting as each of these (and more) are on the correct-the-course front, I’d like to suggest that although all of the above are crucial, perhaps they need not be our front-line priorities. I’d suggest three others.

1) Move legislation to protect the Mueller investigation. There are bipartisan bills ready to do just that, now that we will have the numbers and will be in control of the House agenda. The Senate may kill this when it reaches their chamber, but they will expose themselves further if they do so.
2) Democrats won in large part because of their emphasis on protecting and improving “Obamacare,” the Affordable Care Act. That has to be in the top three must-do’s, immediately.
3) The last item on my top three priorities may seem out of left field and is one only a few House members have raised, Representative Gerry Connolly, Democratic of Virginia, among them: The Census.

I can almost hear you yawn.

The Census? How boring and irrelevant! All those numbers and statistics and ditzy questions, when instead we could be investigating Trump’s cover-up payoffs about his relationships with former porn stars and playboy models. The Census? Decidedly not a sexy issue.

So let’s spare a word for addressing and updating the Census, which is rapidly approaching in 2020 and thus needs to be dealt with immediately. The Census is the source for all domestic and some foreign policies, electoral procedures, education, immigration, economic planing, allocation of benefits and subsidies, demographics on life expectancy, age, health, violence, poverty, death, sex, race/ethnicity, and more. The Trumpists have been messing about with census categories, definitions, and processes. For example, the White House asked the Commerce Department to develop a rule change with sweeping implications for the division of power in the United States, and which could fortify G.O.P. gains for a decade. The Commerce Department then announced, “A question on citizenship status will be reinstated to the 2020 decennial census questionnaire”—without reference to the fact that inquiries about citizenship were standard from 1820 through 1950, when the topic was dropped from the decennial questionnaire as intrusive and discriminatory. This kind of manipulation feeds directly into the carefully built and largely successful GOP drive toward gerrymandering—which is why until a few weeks ago Trump controlled all three branches of government.

Part of fixing the Census has to do with naming. For instance, according to the Pew Research Center, more than a quarter of American Asians and Hispanics marry outside their race/ethnicity. Are their children white? Are they minorities? Both? What about their grandchildren? And why don’t we refer to white Americans as European Americans, accurately? The whole conversation about America becoming a majority/minority country rests on such definitions. What’s more, those definitions also can change over time. When the Irish were newly arrived immigrants they were considered “Black Irish,” and Italians were regarded as “swarthy” until in time they were considered “assimilated” and became TaaDAAAA: “White”! These days, many people are afraid of detention or deportation investigations if they answer census questions honestly—questions about whether immigrants, legally here or not, live in their household—so invalid data results about the community’s real numbers and needs.

Where women are concerned—Oh my god. The Census is absolutely central. It tells us, for instance, that 80 percent of employed women are still in sex-segregated, low-benefit, “pink collar” jobs, that two-thirds of all part-time workers are female, and that women are still the last hired and first fired. It tells us how many women are self-supporting with dependent children, how affirmative-action programs with federal contracts and schools with federal funding are doing or failing in their mandated protection of us; it tells us how many of us are un- or under-employed, have credit or can’t get it, and are on welfare. From the Census we learn what our birthrates and deathrates are. Its data affects our health and influences Medicare and Medicaid policy. When seemingly abstract statistics are skewed, through error or deliberate manipulation, real people suffer.

Most of all, the Census can erase women’s labor, and has.

Women constitute well over 40 percent of the paid labor force, in addition to contributing more than 40 percent of the Gross Domestic Product in unpaid-and-thus-invisible labor in the home. Think about that. It’s staggering. All that cooking, cleaning, sorting and washing, drying and folding, shopping, doing errands, driving, gardening, maintenance of household appliances and vehicles, etc., multitasking, and rising at 2 AM to tend to a sick kid . . . pause for a breath. Plus record keeping, bill paying, family-social-calendar managing, and most central of all: giving birth, nursing, and child raising—reproducing and training the labor force itself, the means of production—which in turn makes every other aspect of all production possible.

Each of the tasks listed above, performed whether the woman is or is not also employed outside the home (which makes for the at-home “second shift”), is invisible labor, because the Census has not factored any of it in, via “employment” questions. Canada and the Scandinavian countries have already changed their censuses to include questions about such invisible labor. The category expands in agricultural areas—and internationally in agrarian societies and developing countries where women also do subsistence farming, herding/milking/tending animals, gathering fuel, hauling water, and preserving food.

I’m not talking about “wages for housework” or comparable monetizing schemes, but about recognizing value. When women’s life-creating and life-sustaining work is valued, women are valued.

Under Trump, the Census has been corrupted and weaponized into a political tool. We need to rescue it back into reality so that it’s able to make factual projections that have a sensible impact on planning. Or, as a spokesperson for the Census Bureau was reported to say plaintively, ”We just really need to get back to sticking to data.”

So that’s my third priority, because time is short and so many other urgent priorities rely on Census data. But hey, our new House of Reps ought to be able to accomplish all three and much more. Unlike the current House majority, we can surely walk, chew gum, legislate, and remain human beings at the same time.