Notes from a Census-Taker

AT THE BEGINNING of August, I began a job as an enumerator for the United States Census, going door to door with my government-issued iPhone in an effort to sign people up who have not previously been counted. 

Given the divisions in the country, the census feels more important than ever this year. Yet, as this August 3 story from NPR relates, the closing date has been moved up one month, from the end of October to the end of September.

There are only a few weeks left to get everyone counted!

Why should you care?

Many people may not know or remember that the census is mandated by the United States Constitution. As a result of Article 1, Section 2, the United States has counted its population every 10 years since 1790!

There are two main reasons for this. According to the U. S. Census website, “Census results help determine how billions of dollars in federal funding flow into states and communities each year.”

The results also determine the number of seats in Congress each state gets.

So I, and thousands of others like me, push on, knocking on closed doors in communities we do not know, masks on, to see if anyone is home and able and willing to take a few minutes to answer our questions.

The results are confidential, and the questions basic. How many people live there? Names and birth dates. Housing information and ethnicity. If no one answers, we leave a form with information about ways the residents can respond by phone or online.

Everyone living in the United States and its five territories is required by law to be counted in the 2020 Census.

A friend of mine recently asked what I have learned so far from working with the census.

It’s complicated and evolving. But here are some observations as I begin my sixth week:

I have developed a deep appreciation for the magnitude of this effort. Especially during a pandemic, it is mind-boggling. It is bureaucratic at times and there are glitches — I, and at least some other enumerators, tragically are home today for a third day due to a computer malfunction — but it is an enormous, sprawling undertaking. 

It is so important, yet it depends on computers, a national database that has not been updated for a decade, and minimally trained part-timers like me.

Of course, most Americans were given the opportunity to respond by mail last spring, and many did. Yet according to the August 24 Sunday New York Times, 38 million people still had not been counted.

Given the scramble to complete results earlier than originally scheduled, it feels more important than ever to get it right. But the end result inevitably will fall short and be imperfect. There will be plenty of grist for the critics.

Except for voting, the idea of our participatory democracy is often abstract. But answering the census is a way for people to feel as if they count for something (literally!). When I sign a person or family up, the experience is almost intimate for them and me as we do our parts to make this shared enterprise work. 

I wasn’t expecting this, but it is the best part of the job. On a good day, I sign up 20-30 people in a shift.

I’ve lived a pretty sheltered life, and the census work has pushed me outside my comfort zone to see in person how the other half lives. Many of the places I visit are in poorer sections of towns, with people sometimes living in shabby conditions. 

I think of myself as someone who appreciates my privilege and is empathetic. But there is great value in coming face to face with people who are my neighbors who are struggling. In most instances, I am welcomed. It is both warm to see people’s spirit, and humbling. 

This will probably come as no surprise, and it is a generalization. But it is the immigrants and minorities who have a deeper knowledge of our democracy and the importance of the census than many of the white natives, some of whom are suspicious and resentful (as if the government couldn’t get this information about them, and much more, in other ways!).

This begs the question: why haven’t they responded before? Why has anyone not responded?

It could be a language issue. The initial mailing may have been overlooked or lost. People move, and sometimes the mail does not catch up with them.

The politicizing and distrust some people feel about our government spills over into the census in some instances. And of course, this year the pandemic has disrupted everyone’s lives (the deployment of people like me was delayed by several months as a result).

Having said that, many people thank me when we are done. There is strong support and understanding among the majority of the people I meet.

Yet some people simply don’t appreciate the importance of the census, which is why I am posting this.

If you haven’t already completed your census survey, please do!

If you find a blue “Notice of Visit” form sandwiched between your doors, please take the time to read it and call or go online to complete it.

And if a stranger like me comes knocking on your door (showing you our ID badge and U. S. Census shoulder bag), please give us a few minutes, for your sake as much as mine.

We are here because everyone counts.

APERTURE 14 (revisited), oil on canvas, 8×10

4 Replies to “Notes from a Census-Taker”

  1. Hi Russell
    How well said!
    I am also doing the census here in Provincetown and have had only one ugly encounter. Every you say is right on.
    I am going to forward this to my supervisor.
    Thank you R

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