Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Our US census forms arrived a few days ago and I found filling them out to be quite the interesting experience, not just because I love to do paperwork. Yes, the race/ethnicity* part of the survey could generate endless debate and offers a unique view into the (disfunctional) perspective our government and many citizens have about the topic...but it's not what fascinated me about the census. Rather, it's what the census didn't ask that got me.

Back in 2007 when I filled out the Mozambican census, in addition to the requisite name/age/race information, they wanted to know:
  • Did we own a car, tractor or bicycle?
  • Did we own any farm implements (e.g. hoe, shovel, trowel)?
  • How many rooms were in our house?
  • Did we own a TV or radio?
  • Did we have a computer or internet access?
  • Where was I born?
  • What was my mother tongue and what language did we speak currently speak at home?
  • What was my profession?
  • What level of schooling had I completed?
They even sent a nice uniformed census worker over to the house to sit with me and fill out the form on my behalf (a necessity in a country where there are over 21 languages spoken and illiteracy rates are high).

Clearly the census in Mozambique has a much broader socio-developmental application as compared to here in the US, where it seems to be much more about a cut-and-dry tallying-up of the population.

I find it fascinating to think about the myriad reasons why the Mozambican-style census would never fly here in the US...

*The old race/ethnicity categorization is a challenge for many people, but notoriously for Brazilians who tend to be shoved into the "Latino/Hispanic" ethnicity despite not self-identifying as such, and have a terribly difficult time picking only one race to describe their generally mixed heritage. After some reflection, Rico chose the "Other" subcategory of "Latino/Hispanic" and wrote in Brazilian, then chose "White" for race, as his family is predominately Portuguese.


Eliza Evans said...

I'm pretty sure the census form ten years ago was a lot more like the one you had in Mozambique. Do you remember filling it out at UNM? I remember picking up my copy from the mail room, haha.

Anyway, I guess people complained about the census questions being too detailed and feeling like their privacy was compromised.

I personally love the census and would have happily filled out buckets of pages about my number of televisions, etc. Alas, it was not to be.

Jmo said...

Ali, I think that here everyone fills out the basic form and a random sample also fill out a much longer and more detailed form. Then they just extrapolate the data rather than tabbing up millions of responses.

Ali la Loca said...

~Eliza - I've never filled out a US census before. I was always living abroad (or too young) in census years, which made me sort of sad because I also really enjoy filling out all the questions. I guess in compensation I got the unique opportunity to take part in the Brazilian *and* Mozambican census...

~Jmo - How interesting. I figured there would be a more detailed sample somewhere, but wasn't sure how it worked. I can only imagine how expensive and inefficient it would be to send a worker to every home in the US to help fill out the census forms!

Anonymous said...

My 10 yr old completed ours, and it was interesting to watch her reaction to the race/ethnicity question. She's the product of a "white" and "latino" couple, and she was stumped on how to identify herself. We do have a real race issue in our country. Ugh...

Fly Brother said...

I got to fill out the Colombian census in 2005! Yay.