American Community Onlooker (January 7, 2012)





For my first blog post of 2012, I would like to share the story of a woman who nurtured a late-2011 resolve to feel more even keel about life as a mid-30s divorcee. A wizened chick who had directed much of her considerable energy to achieving independence and a thriving media career, despite tremendous emotional and other personal costs. A gal who had finally started to come to terms with her circumstances and comprehend that though we don’t always live the existence we imagined, there is a way to learn to love the universe you have created.

That is until the American Community Survey showed up in the mailbox to remind her just how footloose and unattached life really is, and how frayed from the nation’s social fabric this renders her. Leave it to the Census Bureau to create revulsion and anxiety even in a year that doesn’t end in “0.”

Though the Bureau states on its website that the ACS is issued annually, I had never been selected as a respondent. Being a curious individual and a journalist by trade, I went looking for information. This is what I found:

“The ACS is oriented around giving communities the current information they need to plan investments and services. Information from the survey generates data that help determine how more than $400 billion in federal and state funds are distributed each year…All this detail is combined into statistics that are used to help decide everything from school lunch programs to new hospitals.”

Well that all sounds good and I am nothing if not a civic-minded person. I love my community (the Chicago neighborhood of Rogers Park) and will do gladly do anything I can to better it. Naturally however, I wondered how I came to be selected to complete the survey. I learned I was chosen “as a part of a sample and represents thousands of other households like yours. We randomly select about 3 million addresses each year to participate in the survey.”

I have only lived in my studio apartment for eight months. I happen to know from mail forwarding mishaps that the previous occupants were a married couple. As I sat down to provide the requested survey information, I realized with irony that the Census Bureau may have been coveting the information of the stable ones who came before me.

The survey began benignly enough: questions about birthdate, hometown, occupation, race and income. Standard stuff. But since the well-meaning folks at the ACS plan to use the cumulative data to plan educational resources and other bedrock elements of society, naturally the queries began to get more personal and for me, uncomfortable.

17b. “Is this person blind or does he/she have serious difficulty seeing even when wearing glasses.”

Ok, well I am pretty damned near-sighted (20/1100 vision), but I am not ready for a service dog yet. Let’s continue.

  1. “How many minutes did it usually take this person to get from home to work LAST WEEK.”

Please don’t ask me why the last two words are in caps. I am not omniscient. Maybe corporate headquarters move around sometimes like magic? Anyway, I leave my apartment at 6:05 AM and arrive at the office at 8:20. Thanks ACS, I love my work but after seeing the numbers in such stark terms, I am officially depressed about my commute. What’s next?

  1. “What is this person’s marital status?”

Fine, it stings, but this is an easy one: divorced.

  1. “How many times has this person been married?”

Um, I think I need to open a bottle of wine while I finish this.

  1. “In what year did this person last get married?”

How in the world is this important information? Obviously I am divorced. How does it help the community to know when the long process of failure began?

24a. “Has this person given birth to children in the past 12 months?”


24b. “Ever?”

Xanax please. Am I on Candid Camera? Again how does my barren womb aid the neighborhood? Does this open more early childcare spots for families in need if the federal government is reasonably certain that no offspring of mine will ever require one? Just tell me what the endgame is here so I feel slightly better about recording my solitude and loneliness for posterity.

I think you get the picture right? As a dyed in the wool social liberal I want to do everything possible to benefit my fellow citizens. But come on Census Bureau, have a heart. It’s a new year and some of us are trying to convince ourselves that a life without attachments is uplifting and full of promise, rather than empty and simply a matter of counting the days until we become society’s burden.

Come to think of it, maybe those rascals at the ACS are attempting to ascertain when single “households like” mine will be in need of Social Security benefits and a public retirement home. Or perhaps this survey was placed in my hands a true test of my ability to accept myself and my life choices.

Survey says?


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