Stalked by Census

By Karen Rutzick

June 1, 2007

My face of government won't let me be.

I have a stalker. Her name is Shirley and she works for the U.S. Census Bureau.

Shirley calls me more than some of my friends from childhood or college. She calls more than my cousin at UCLA law school. Shirley writes, too. And she stops by my apartment, slipping business cards under my door while I hide in the dark. So far, she hasn't come to the office, but she did call my managing editor once to track me down.

It started more than five years ago, when I was still in college. My family was one of 62,000 households randomly selected for the Survey of Income and Program Participation. Since I was considered part of that household when the survey started, I'm stuck in it.

"It's like some sort of lottery, except I didn't win one that gives me money," my stepmother, Cynthia Rutzick, says.

SIPP is a more intensive version of the Census Bureau's once-a-decade routine. Every four months, federal employees across the country prod participants for the most personal of information.

Shirley knows my income, my savings and how much interest my checking account earns each quarter.

Yes, Shirley, I'm still single. No, not widowed. Just single.

And no, Shirley, I probably don't save enough because I don't have any stocks or bonds or CDs or an IRA or anything other than my 401(k), even though you ask me every time. I already feel guilty about that.

I'll admit it: Shirley only stalks me because she has to. If I'd just answer my cell phone when "census lady" pops up on caller ID, I'd get it over with in 15 minutes. But I'm in Boston watching my boyfriend run the marathon or on my way to a Hanukkah party on the National Mall or, say, busy at work. And I dread answering all those private, guilt-inducing questions. Last year, I avoided the calls and visits for weeks, thinking they would take me off the study eventually. They only became more persistent until I caved.

"I thought I'd try you at home," Shirley says in one voice message. "I'd appreciate a return call. I do have a deadline to meet. I know you know about deadlines, being a reporter and all." Her messages get increasingly dire as a couple of days pass.

"This is Shirley," she says. "I'm desperate to meet my deadline. Please, please call me. I take phone calls as late as 1 a.m. Did try calling you at work a few times. I am desperate to speak with you. Please call me."

I understand that the survey is important. It measures vital government programs, including food stamps and Medicare, and private ones such as health insurance and labor unions. Congress uses the results to make decisions.

I asked Shirley once if other participants protest, too.

"Most people think we're being nosy; it's none of our business; this, that or the other," she says. "We don't think it's asking too much to give up a little bit of your time to make a difference."

I agree, mostly. But I also think there's another impact to consider. For most Americans, their only contact with federal employees-and their government-is interaction with Internal Revenue Service agents or Social Security workers. Maybe natural disaster will strike and they'll talk to a FEMA employee. Rarely do average Americans encounter people from the Patent and Trademark Office or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as important as their work is.

If I didn't write for Government Executive, for me, the face of government would be Shirley from Census. It's a face that just won't let me be.

The survey was supposed to wrap up last fall, but last March, 530 researchers, including two Nobel Laureate economists, wrote to Congress asking them keep the SIPP going. Funding was granted. Shirley will be calling in August.

By Karen Rutzick

June 1, 2007