A little help in making sense out of the census

Baltimore Sun

I've always prided myself on my ability to count my family members. This is because I'm at the life stage where people come and go - I have two college students who often have different schedules. I also have a high school son who frequently stays after school for enriching activities to put on his college application resume, such as the Sherpa Knot-Tying Club, the Musical Instrument Disassembling Society and the Students for Cryptic Texting.

Most nights I very quickly - in my head - assess who is going to be home for dinner, and I have a 100 percent accuracy rate. What's more, I have never taken more than 15 items in the express lane.

Just last week I received my official United States 2010 Census form in the mail, and I snatched it from the stack, knowing full well that counting was my forte. Imagine my consternation when I discovered it contained a trick question.

Because I am familiar with other forms - such as tax forms - issued by the United States government and penned by graduates of IOU (Intentionally Obfuscating University), I decided to read the instructions thoroughly. And right there, under boldface item two about the Census Bureau conducting counts in other institutions, there is the bulleted phrase: "Leave these people off your form, even if they will return to live here after they leave college, the nursing home, the military, jail, etc. Otherwise, they may be counted twice."

This is deceptively clear. Do not count college students. I proceeded confidently with the form, stating that three people resided in my home on April 1, 2010, though of course April 1 had not yet arrived, and is, in fact, "April Fool's Day," a huge holiday in my family. I did briefly consider answering "15,798" and then writing in the margin "April Fools!" but I wasn't sure the U.S. government would get a chuckle.

So I moved on to question No. 2, which addresses the additional people staying in my home, not included in question No. 1. This, I figured, would be my high school son, but not my dog, though he certainly eats as much and frankly requires more attention at this point.

I answered the remaining questions about my son rapidly, until I got to trick question No. 10. This states "Does person 1 sometimes live or stay somewhere else?" and - you guessed it - the very first option is "In college housing." This shed doubt on my earlier reading of the instructions.

I phoned the U.S. Census Bureau to confirm my decision not to count my college students. A representative read me a paragraph from her approved telephone script over and over, about how college students live in dorms, military people live in barracks and jailed persons live in cells. I thanked her and went with my gut. Then I posted a snarky status on my Facebook account about how I couldn't believe I had a problem filling out the census form.

Fortunately, one of my Facebook contacts is my high school friend Ttocs Rotnac, whose privacy has been protected by backward spelling. Ttocs is a parent of a current Yale student, and he forwarded me a note from the dean of Yale, Yram Rellim (name also cleverly coded), who sent out this articulate e-mail. I excerpt it here for all Marylanders who have college students and are filling out the census. Simply substitute your child's college for "Yale."

"You should not list your son or daughter on the census questionnaire that you receive at your home if he or she is either enrolled at Yale this term or studying abroad or on leave for the spring term. However, a student who is away from Yale for more than one semester should be counted at his or her current place of residence. That may be home."

Perhaps Ms. Rellim might consider leaving her dead-end job. Clearly, her country - and the Census Bureau - needs her.

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