Friday, September 3, 2010

Confessions of a census thug

I have taken my Robert Mullins blog out of mothballs after 10 months to post this item on my experience in May and June as an enumerator for the U.S. Census Bureau. I hope you enjoy it. the Census Bureau has rules that employees who blog about their experience can't make any money out of it so, please, don't send me any. Robert

When I informed my family and friends that I'd taken a job as an enumerator for the U.S. Census Bureau, one of my nieces replied, "Oh, so you're a census thug!" and it gave me a chuckle.
Every 10 years, dating back to 1790, the U.S. conducts a census of the population and, every 10 years, a certain percentage of people don't mail back the form because they lost it, they think it's a government conspiracy to spy on them or it just isn't a priority. So every 10 years, the government hires an army of people like me to go door-to-door to the laggards and try to get them to complete the census form.
This year about 600,000 of us "census thugs" fanned out to 48 million households nationwide from which a form was not received to (gently) lean on them. Since forms were sent to about 120 million addresses, that comes out to a delinquency rate of 40 percent.
My experience during eight weeks in May and June taught me that more than 90 percent of people are cooperative and welcomed me into their homes to complete the form, while the rest remained suspicious, even hostile, to the entire undertaking.
The Census Bureau is very strict about confidentiality with rules prohibiting disclosure of personally identifiable information about citizens. I'm not supposed to disclose the specific location where I worked as an enumerator. All I'll tell you is that my beat was in the eastern exurbs of San Francisco.
In my area, a precinct if you will, 19 people were deployed as enumerators and like me, most of them were underemployed. I'm a reporter covering the tech industry who works freelance, not by design but by circumstance; another enumerator had lost his auto parts business; another had quit her job and moved out-of-state with her husband, only to divorce him and return to find her job gone.
After a few weeks, we began sharing stories with each other of the people we encountered. One enumerator said one respondent called the local police reporting a trespasser. The enumerator showed his credentials and two officers stood behind him as he completed the survey.
That was a better outcome than the May 21 case in Yuba City, Calif., where an enumerator was greeted at the door by a man brandishing a handgun. She quickly retreated, called her supervisor and then police. When police arrived they were confronted by not just the man with a handgun, but a 67-year-old woman with a shotgun. After failing to heed officers' repeated demands that she put down the shotgun, police shot and killed the woman.
The Washington Post reported in late May 113 attacks on census workers nationwide just that month, when enumerators were busiest.
Although there were a few veiled threats of violence made to enumerators in my group, most of the time people were just being jerks.
One angry-looking respondent flat out refused to answer my questions. "I'm not giving any information to the f-ing government," he said, before closing the door in my face. We, of course, have to remain professional and polite, but part of me wanted to say, "Okay, pal. But if you think you see any black helicopters flying over your house, they're ours." (Full disclosure: the Census Bureau does not have black helicopters.)
A census form left for me, crumpled
and under the sprinklers (and still valid).

Then there are those who think they know the law better than the Census Bureau. "You know what 'census' means? It means to enumerate, to count," said one who would only tell me that, count 'em, two people lived at his address. That may be the dictionary definition of census but it's not the legal one. The governing authority of the Census Bureau is Title 13 of the U.S. Code, which, among other things, determines what questions can be asked and should be answered to complete a census form.
But there's a certain number of respondents who choose to be, well, dicks. Given that census statistics are used, among other reasons, to allocate federal anti-poverty funds, I found it ironic that Mr. You Only Get to Count People had a sign on his doorbell of a rendering of a fish with the word "Jesus" written inside it. Jesus as in "love thy neighbor as thy self" Jesus and help the poor, feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the needy Jesus. Yeah, that Jesus. But I made a judgment call not to point out his hypocrisy.
Other enumerators who visited mobile home parks or apartment complexes reported resistance from managers to providing contact information about residents. It turns out there's a section in Title 13 that states that such obstruction is punishable by up to a $500 fine. You can refuse to cooperate with the census, but you can't deny someone else their right to be counted.
Our crew leader shared this information with us via e-mail to which I replied, "If that doesn't work, tell them your partner is Jack Bauer."
Jack Bauer, Census Enumerator

The hero of the TV series "24" would be an effective enumerator, I felt. "DAMMIT! WHO WAS LIVING IN THIS HOUSEHOLD ON APRIL 1, 2010? GIVE ME THEIR NAMES!" Can you just see it? We'd get that response rate up to 100 percent in no time.
Still, in other cases, I learned that people who I felt were being obstructionist had something else going on in their lives that for them meant filling out a census form wasn't a priority. "We have sickness in our house," bellowed one.
In another case, there was a home I'd visited several times, leaving notes asking for a call back, but receiving none. Eventually, I found a phone number for the house and a woman finally answered. "How are you?" I asked. "I'm crying, can't you tell?" she replied before hanging up. While people who fail to respond to requests for an interview may be rude, inconsiderate or hostile, the fact is you never really know what's going on behind that door on which you are knocking.
While a few of the refusals came from people who were just being obstinate for its own sake, some of the other objections likely reflected the times. After reading one reluctant respondent the boilerplate language about how his census answers would be kept confidential, he said, "Well, I've heard that before," and refused to answer any more questions. To be sure, the phrase "identity theft" was not in the national vocabulary in 2000, 1990, 1980 or before that, but it is now.
But we enumerators were all acting in good faith. As a technology reporter, I've done a few stories about network security and it's amazing how many breaches have been reported at banks, ATMs, or of medical or credit card records and the like. But I've never heard of a breach of confidential information involving the Census Bureau.
There were heartwarming moments. At one address, I learned there were 11 people of three generations living under one roof. The grandmother laughed when I told her I had to go back to my car to get extra forms.
Then there was the elderly couple, both 75, alone in their house. The wife didn't speak English but the husband spoke it well enough to complete the form. He was struggling to walk with a cane, telling me he'd fallen down the day before and had a doctor's appointment the next day. I thanked them warmly for their cooperation. A few minutes later I was back in my car, doing some paperwork, when I see through my windshield the old man, struggling down the driveway on his cane, coming to bring me a chilled bottled water from his refrigerator.
Those are the kinds of people who deserve to be counted as members of their community.

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