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Making "census" of enumeration

Sun Advocate publisher

In early 2000 I owned a small consulting and freelance writing business that was falling upon hard times. While I had been able to make a substantial contribution to household expenses and bills with my business earnings in the years between 1995-99 I found myself relying more and more upon odd jobs and my wife's income to make ends meet.

Hence, when the 2000 census operation came along I applied to work for the United States government, thinking the money would not only be good, but that the experience would be invaluable to a writer such as myself.

Based on what one could make in Carbon County at the time the pay was good; I believe it was like $10-$12 per hour. I initially applied for a management job, hoping to get more money, as well as more hours. I had years of management experience with both private companies and in public administration. I took a an exam to determine my status, and one day I was called for an interview. After the interview I was told I was to be an enumerator, which sounded pretty impressive until I learned that that position is the lowest level of rank in the census seeking process. An enumerator is the person who actually goes out into homes and talks with people. As I was soon to learn, it was somewhat like selling vacuum cleaners door to door, but that instead you were selling the government and their right to get information to people.

First those of us who were to become enumerators needed to go through a number of days of training. If I remember correctlyit was an entire week. It was extensive and detail oriented instruction, covering all aspects of getting people to tell you about themselves. The census bureau has been around since 1790, created right after the Constitution was enacted, and it was obvious by the training they provided that they had taken many of the experiences that they had garnered in the 200 years since the first census and narrowed it down into what any enumerator would need to know. We learned about how to take the information, what questions to ask to get to information that wasn't forthcoming, how to fill out the forms we carried properly, and how to deal with difficult people.

That last one was the most interesting for me. That is what I had done for many years in my consulting business; difficult people were always the ones that held things up everywhere I ever worked and in the census business it was no different.

When I went out in the field to actually "enumerate" I found this out once again. In 2000, like this year, forms were sent to all addresses and people were asked to submit them. Not all came back (which is apparently like this year too). So one of our jobs was to visit those residences that didn't return their paperwork. For the most part, people not sending the forms in was just an oversight or they just didn't find what came to them in the mail important enough to respond. But there was also that group that didn't send them back for a reason; they thought the government had no business knowing anything about them.

We also had to perform a special census in a certain number of homes with what I recall as being termed the long form. These residents may have sent their mailed out forms in, but we needed to do a much more detailed report on those addresses and so we had to visit them personally. Those visits would sometimes take a good deal of time. These expanded samplings were to be used to draw a clear picture of many more aspects of what was going on in the country than the general questions were designed to do. Based on what I have heard, the census bureau is no longer asking people during this census to do the long forms. That's good for enumerators who are working today, because those were the toughest part of the job, especially when one ran into people who were anti government. Besides at times it seemed very tacky to be asking about how many toilets people had in their house or what color their dog was. (okay, it didn't go that far, but the questions did get some people riled up).

My area of enumeration was northeast Price. The forms were printed out and we had a map of the households we were to cover. I learned some valuable things doing this. One was that no matter what time of day you went out at least 50 percent of the doors you knocked on were not answered. It didn't mean people weren't home, but the doors were just not answered.

Next I learned that when a guy holds the gate in his front yard closed (so as not to let you even on his property) while holding a baseball bat in his other hand it was best to leave, go back to the supervisor and tell him the person did not want to cooperate. Gate holding generally meant the person holding it saw you as Satan incarnate.

Fourth, if someone keeps you outside on their porch talking to you through a crack in the door and is not very willing to answer questions, look up and make sure someone is not leaning out of the second story of the building ready to pour hot water on your head or to fling dog dung onto your back.

Fifth I learned that I never wanted to be a cop. I thought if this many people hated me just because I worked for the census bureau, I couldn't imagine how they must feel about people with uniforms and guns.

So if an enumerator comes to your house to ask questions, realize that he or she is probably someone that last week was looking for a job, found one, and is only doing what they have been trained to do. There is nothing nefarious about what they have in mind regardless if the form they are filling out has "U.S." printed on it..

And remember too, that even 10 years later, I know where those people live that gave me such a bad time, and I remember their faces. So it is not beyond belief that someone who you throw out of your house today might be working the drive up window at your favorite burger joint one day when you place your order. Strange things can happen to food between the hot plate and the palate.

So be nice to enumerators, for they will not always be what they are today.

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