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Tales from the Census, or, I Just Work Here

I’ve been working as a Census enumerator for about a week and I consider myself pretty lucky to have gotten only one face-to-face, flat-out refusal. It was yesterday, while my supervisor was doing his mandatory ride-along with me to make sure I was doing my job correctly.

We started walking toward the house when someone walked outside the front door to greet me. I got the “Can I help you?” spiel, I showed my badge, and nicely explained I was with the Census Bureau and I was there to fill out a questionnaire. “I sent mine in a month ago,” she said. I explained to her kindly that we hadn’t received it and I still needed to fill out a questionnaire. She then yelled at me. “I SENT IT IN. THANK YOU.” and she walked back into her house.

Ouch.

If someone refuses to talk to us, we still have to try our hardest to get a head count. The easiest way is to go to a next-door neighbor. Fortunately I was able to get the neighbor to tell me how many people were in the house next door. But as my supervisor and I got back into the car to leave, the person who yelled at me earlier sat on her front porch and watched us drive away.

WTF?

Apparently there’s this attitude that census enumerators are these horrible predators who want to take your personal information and use it for sinister reasons. I read some right-wing tea-party-leaning blog yesterday that described enumerators as “ACORN-type” and “Census clowns.”

First of all, enumerators are all seasonal employees. We don’t do this for a living. We do this because we need MONEY. In my training class, when we were asked why we became interested in working for the Census, there was a common thread in all the answers: We Need Money. “I’m trying to save up for a vacation.” “I am on unemployment.” “I need the extra cash.” I’ll admit, I provided the nerdy “We need to count everyone to make sure we get enough money for the community” answer, but I was the ONLY person who gave that answer. Out of a class of about 20 people. So there. We’re just working. At our jobs.

Secondly, Census employees come from all kinds of backgrounds. There are college students and retirees. Customer service reps. WWII Vets. People who voted for Obama, people who voted for McCain. Conservatives, liberals and moderates. We’re all just working and trying to make some money.

And finally, we don’t want to bother you! We are not going to demand to go in your home, but if it’s clean, safe and air-conditioned it’s a nice break for us if you invite us inside. We also may be a little miffed, but if you don’t want to give any of the information on the questionnaire, you don’t have to! The more info we have, the better it is for your city, but seriously, if you don’t feel comfortable giving your age/race/phone number to the Census it is no big deal.

Wait – maybe that wasn’t “finally.” This is “finally.” All that energy you are using to yell at us could have been saved for someone else if you’d just filled out your form and sent it in on time. That’s the only reason we’re there – because we didn’t get a form from you. Maybe in ten years you’ll fill it in and you won’t get a visit from some stranger who wants to know how many people were living in your house on April 1.

My supervisor gave me the “eh, don’t worry about people yelling at you” spiel. I explained to him that I’d been yelled at by strangers plenty of times before as an ex-reporter. It doesn’t make it any better knowing that you pissed someone off one day.

But in other news, I did get a really nice interview yesterday from a woman who asked me what the purpose of the Census was. And most people have been compliant. I also haven’t been attacked by any dogs yet.

But if you get a visit from an enumerator – whether to ask about you or your neighbors – just be nice. We’re just trying to earn some money knocking on the doors in the sweltering heat and trying to count heads so that maybe we can justify putting a caution light at an intersection or adding sidewalks to a neighborhood with lots of children, or building a senior activity center to help our parents and grandparents be active and sociable. We’re humans with homes, too.

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