Saturday, March 2, 2013

Civic duty - yeah right

5 March is census day here in Aotearoa/New Zealand. In theory, every good citizen will sit down and fill out their forms, and the government will then have the information it needs to plan the best life for us within its means.

The last census was due the year of the earthquakes, and it was cancelled. Too much change, too fast.

The last actual census, i had a job as a census taker. i took a set of blocks around the Christchurch city east area. i was comfortable there, as i had lived there earlier in my life, and thought i knew it well. My beat took in the City Mission men's night shelter, and a detox facility, and several backpackers' hostels. i knew it to be an area of transients, multicultural, poor.

i found layers of weird -as random sociology on my doorstep. i had no idea. The oldest layer consisted of a few original houses with elderly people in them. They had lived there since the area was a suburb. Imagine me arriving at a door and finding it wide open, with that old person smell and the tick of a grandfather clock and the dust motes dancing in the shafts of sunlight and no one in sight. Where were they? Who were they? Are they all right?

The second layer was the one i was used to - the bedsits and doss houses and manky old neglected villas. There are strict rules for census takers. You are Not Allowed to Cross the Threshold. You are Not Allowed to Help Them Fill Out Their Forms. i found refugees and people with little literacy and ended up having to explain to them what was a mezzanine floor, for heaven's sake, and doing the forms with them. The refugees were very helpful and offered me refreshments, thus meaning i broke the rule Not Taking Any Refreshments.  There were a surprising number of flats very crowded with young people from eastern Asia, who would not talk to me at all. i interrupted crimes and people having sex. i got shouted at a bit. The men's night shelter was fun. i went there for dinner time. The men there would not give me any address because they did not want anyone to know what bush they slept under. Kind staff gave me biscuits which were promptly and carefully stolen.

The third layer was for me the most disturbing. It was the layer of the Dark Towers. These were gated apartments where there was no access apart from keypads. Sometimes i could ring a bell and talk into a speaker. Sometimes i had no access at all. There could be thirty flats in a Dark Tower. They would advertise themselves as walking distance to the CBD, to clubs and restaurants, but nobody walked. They drove their cars into the lockup basement garage. One of the census taking rules was You Must Deliver The Forms in Person. i broke this rule too. It was difficult to talk to people even if they were accessible. They would first look out the window to see if i was harmless, then unlock and unbolt and peep through the security chain. i tried to specialise in looking harmless.

i thought that the third layer was a reaction to the second. The Dark Tower people  wanted to protect themselves from the doss house denizens and the City Mission men. And perhaps from bad shit in general. And the oldest layer had no clue that right next to them were towers dedicated to that low grade paranoia engendered by late capitalist thinking. They just pottered in their blowsy gardens and left the doors open.

The success of the national census is predicated on the idea that our society is relatively stable and homogeneous. It hearkens back to an age of six o clock news and dinners eaten as a nuclear family, when everyone sat down on the appointed day and filled out their forms with a sense of civic duty.

Well, that ain't happening. When the people i found weren't actively hostile they were mostly indifferent. They couldn't tell me anything about their flatmates. They didn't know where even they themselves would be on the day of the census. They couldn't give me a time to come back. And people lived and worked erratically; they had two homes or none and they were often in neither.

The organisers of the census seemed unprepared for all of this. Their maps were out of date. Their rules were unworkable. My strike rate was about 64%. That means about 36% of people did not fill in their forms. At the time i thought i was doing badly, but it transpired that in inner city areas all over the country the strike rate was about the same. This means the census is woefully inaccurate, a fact that historians have known for decades in part because it takes so long to collate it is out of date before it's published. Our society, if there is one, is changing even more rapidly than we know.

It is easy to avoid the census. Just don't answer the door. If you refuse to fill in the form a supervisor will be notified. They are supposed to call on you and heavy you, but the will probably be so exhausted with the work they won't bother.

You could also give amusing answers. The best religion i saw was Muslim Jedi. The best occupation was Playing Kick Ass Rock and Roll. All these answers are presumably treated with due care.

i found the whole thing both fascinating and appalling. i was a wreck by the end of it. For some months i avoided the area, and i would get an obscure twinge of terror whenever i knocked on anyone's door for a long time afterwards.

So, whatever your views on the census, if they come to your door please be nice to them. They are poorly paid and generally worthy people who really are - mostly harmless.

1 comment:

  1. I do know of an instance in which the Dept of Int. Aff. did heavy a respondent for answering the 'Occupation' question with a bit of creative levity. She had printed 'Paramour', which seemed to her a reasonable synonym for 'Housewife' - I mean 'Home maker' or whatever the correct Wowser Brigade response is these days.

    This became News of course. Probably everyone bar the Dept of Int. Aff. thought this woman's response reasonable and - broadly speaking - accurate. They actually made her emend the entry.

    I suspect the census taking is an exercise by the government to see just how short a leash they have on law-abiding citizens. Given that not only does the NZ government (and others) falsify the figures of such things as unemployment and inflation, it goes so far as to fictionalise them to the point of fantasy. It becomes difficult to determine whether governments hide the real numbers from themselves, or hide themselves from the real numbers. Both, probably. So I seriously doubt that the government of this country gives a flying hoot in a fart factory how accurately or otherwise the census matches the real world. You know: the one with people in it.