The Census Experience: 1990, A VW Bug, and a Dog

It’s 2020 and, once again, the Census is upon us. Slightly more frequent than the cicadas, the census always produces its own distinct buzz in our society. Every 10 years we engage in serious conversation about how the Census should be conducted, who did the Framers really intend to be counted and whether this Census is being manipulated for political purposes. And, once again, an enormous work force comes together for just a few months to carry out a truly Herculean task: counting every individual person in this populous and geographically extensive nation.

For me, the Census is not only socially and politically interesting but also is also somewhat nostalgic. For a few months in 1988 I was one of the thousands of people engaged as temporary workers in support of the 1990 Census. That summer, as I basked in the afterglow of a completed BA in Geography and contemplated how I would take the world by storm as a graduate student in the fall, I signed up to be a “Field Crew Supervisor” for the US Census Bureau. Obviously, 1988 was not a decennial census year: my crew and I were not involved in administering the Census questionnaire. Instead, we were engaged in some of the preliminary work needed for the actual enumeration to go smoothly two years later. The 1990 Census was the 4th decennial Census to rely primarily on “self-enumeration” for the count of persons in households across the country. With self-enumeration, the Census Bureau mails the census questionnaire to every household in the nation and tracks the return of the questionnaires by address. During the census year, the Bureau only sends enumerators to addresses from which it has yet to receive a questionnaire. My job in 1988 was to help generate the Census Bureau’s mailing list.

Another aspect my job that summer became part of Census Bureau history. In addition to the address lists we were given, my crew and I were sent into the field with digitally produced maps (a rarity in those days) and asked to correct errors relating to the road network and streams. Specifically, we were asked to edit our maps – draw on them – adding any road that wasn’t already represented, deleting roads that didn’t exist and correcting road names. For the stream network, we were asked to verify the points at which a road crossed a stream and correct if necessary. This data, gathered by thousands of people like me across the country, became the Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing database which we all know today knows as the TIGER files. The TIGER database was a joint product of the Census Bureau and the United States Geological Survey and was the first digital nationwide map of roads, boundaries and water. You can read about it at

The work that my crew and I did in the field that summer was a strange mixture of fun, tedium, and terror. Most workdays involved hours of driving alone along the back roads of Clay, Putnam, Greene and Monroe counties in Indiana in the 1971 orange VW bug my wife and I had (the good car). I had to systematically drive my assigned Census tracts, covering every road and recording or verifying every address I encountered. And, even though I love maps, and the chance to actually edit them was like being a kid in a candy store, the monotony of it would occasionally get to me. When I encountered a place that could reasonably be considered habitable but was not included in the lists of addresses, I was required to stop and try to determine the address. This usually meant knocking on the door and talking to a resident. These interactions were generally civil but, occasionally, I would encounter people who really didn’t want a visit from The Government. Some of these interviews were terrifying. I vividly recall a resident threatening to shoot me if I didn’t “get the hell off his land”, while his enormous and obviously lethal dog barked at me and surveyed the distance from his jaw to my neck. I can easily summon up the feelings of fear and helplessness from that experience to this day.

Even so, my recollections of my time with the Census are generally positive. They consist mostly of memories of warm summer days on dusty roads in Clay county; of visiting places in person that before I had only seen on a map (Stinesville – what a weird little town!) and of participating in a process that is distinctly American. It turns out that working for the Census is kind of a DeGrand family thing. My wife Cynthia worked on the 2010 census and my son Henry is working for the current Census. There are unconfirmed reports that my sainted mother worked on the 1980 Census. Who knows, maybe I’ll sign up for the 2030 Census. When the time comes, please remember to send in your form or that person who comes knocking on your door . . .  well, it just might be me!

James Degrand

Senior Researcher

Department of Geography

The Ohio State University