Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/11/04/us_census_data_reveals_joblessness/

US census takers fight angry Americans for their data

They barely even vote. Why would they fill in a form?

By George Smith

Posted in Government, 4th November 2010 12:15 GMT

The results from the US 2010 Decennial Census are guaranteed by the end of the year. However, those who collected it - called enumerators - already know quite a bit about the state of the nation. There's no good news.

The census, conducted once every 10 years, hired a few hundred thousand Americans to collect names, ages and race data, using pencils and forms. It was an ad hoc operation, hiring people swiftly off the street, usually after a 30-minute test of skills and a telephone interview, not at all like the processes now instituted by human resources throughout corporate America. If you were vigorously proactive, had good reading comprehension, could read a map, sort and alphabetise, interpret regulations and schedule yourself independently with very little supervision, you were pretty much in. I know. I was one of them.

In the cratered US economy there was no shortage of motivated and qualified people for the jobs. The economic distress from the Great Recession hit every age and qualification demographic in the US, excluding only the very wealthy and the national security complex. So the crews in Pasadena had the old and young, from the high school educated to those with advanced degrees - everybody from the ranks of the unemployed, underemployed or those trying to squeeze out extra dollars for overstretched budgets.

Census taking in US

While the census overlords always talked about data capture, conjuring up the image of a vast network of machines scattered across the US that were humming away, hoovering up all the data - the reality at street level was analog. Pencils, sharpeners, lots of erasers. Optical character recognition limits required everyone be regularly admonished over penmanship. Questionnaires were regularly sent back to be reworked. "No more water stains!" was the command to a downtown Pasadena crew one week.

Actually, although everyone from regional leaders to enumerators had their drink glasses and water bottles close, sweat stains were probably the culprit. At the beginning of the southern California summer, that was what dripped on the papers as you stood at the door, taking down the answers of the American people. Crews were dispatched to cover blocks of addresses printed in master binders; in my case, one book per block due to population density.

The book listed those who had filled in their census forms by the deadline along with those who hadn't, the latter of which were called NRFU's (pronounced nar-foos) for non-responders. We were hard after them.

Early on, it became clear that faults in data harmonisation and insufficiency in speed of processing guaranteed that some people who had sent in their forms properly weren't in address books with which we were serviced. When you showed up at their door, they'd invariably say they'd returned their form. Since this was one of the standard responses of census dodgers, one had to shrug shoulders and patiently ask them to redo it. Most people were good with that. Some weren't. They'd get cranky, rightly so. When their initial returns would eventually be registered, the books in the field would be rechecked for these addresses, and if they hadn't yet been hit, crossed out. It was usually too late to be effective.

The process was also subject to computer-generated error. Theoretically, the enumerators had the wherewithal to catch glitches and inform their directors. But in my experience, no one was interested. The pace of data collection was so accelerated that the manager with whom I had contact simply didn't want to hear about snafus of any kind.

A case in point, which was not rare, was the dispatching of enumerators from two separate crews to canvas the same address. Normally, the two enumerators would not cross paths on such a computer-generated duplicate. They'd simply hear at the door that someone had already been there, a message delivered with the usual exasperation. Since there was very little effective intercommunication between crews in the city, there was often no way to correct the problem, which was to list one data set as a duplicate for deletion. Very occasionally, you would bump into another enumerator working the same neighborhood on one of these error-caused runs, which would be cause for comparing address books. At which point it always became clear the dispatching had published the same non-responding address in two different volumes.

Maybe the people running the census from the top were interested in such errors being winkled out. At the bottom, no. The best you could hope for was to have your crew leader, who was a step lower than the supervisor, hold a questionnaire return as a potential duplicate so that it could be reconciled later. And they would do so. However, whether this resolved the issue was impossible to determine. From experience, I'd speculate it didn't. In the end, they were probably thrown into the giant data suction.

A jobsdismissals bonanza

Census employment was the only bright spot in the US economy this year. It showed solid results when the army of enumerators went into the field. The president mentioned the more positive employment statistics sometime in late May-early June. Paradoxically, since the statistics lagged the real world, by the time he said it, the census was busy laying off as many people as it could in Pasadena.

The regional leaders were obsessed with performance. They emphasised this by using the good cop/bad cop routine at weekly meetings, but delivered by just one person, perhaps to save money and time. First everyone would be told how much the census appreciated them. A minute later the same person would be insisting that anyone could be replaced anytime.

The regional supervisors had a regular data sheet that showed response collection against the total to be processed. As the census proceeded into early summer, the rate of collection slowed since, by definition, the process was getting down to a hard resistant core of census dodgers.

Just say No to the Census (and the Government

This was cause for the delivery of an inspirational speech, the kind used at mass corporate rallies in the US where people pay to be told, by important figures and celebrities, that the only thing standing in the way of success is their bad attitude. If we were not to run with wolves but soar like eagles, we were told, we should separate ourselves from the drag of the complainers and critics.

And then the census commenced firing people. This was called being put on "hold", or being told to return your address binders. Despite this, the enumerators were virtually free of bad attitude and sloth. The people who stuck with it enjoyed the experience and liked working a job which had a real national purpose - a constitutionally mandated regular accounting of exactly who was living in the United States.

This turned out to be a sticking point for some Americans. Now keep in mind that the enumerator's job was to dig out non-responders, people who hadn't completed their census forms.

The non-responders fell into two general categories. The first included the transient poor and those in the middle class severely damaged by the Great Recession. The second category included crazies from the upper class as well as those looking up enviously - people with the now common idea, reinforced daily by TV, that the US government is tyrannical and Stalinist.

The first category had some compelling reasons for their non-response. They were people who may not have even been living in the places we were visiting for most of the year. They were battered by regular dislocation and distress. If they hadn't filled out their census, they generally said why - no time because of juggling multiple jobs, or moving from place to place, or even losing housing. They showed the big fissures developing in American society - a large body becoming nothing but a servant class to the rich, ridiculously underpaid, often living under transient circumstances or in flophouses. They were the easiest among the NRFUs to canvas. Despite all things, they still had civic pride in America and once you could connect with them, they'd willingly you give you their names and family members in the household, their ages and races.

The others were just census-dodgers. They lived in high button gated condos and apartments where they could count on the protection of corporate property managers who either passively or actively impeded the census. The corporate property managers had two motivations in this, one sometimes being a desire to cover up vacancies and the other being the idea that the wealth and class of tenants entitled them to a firewall against the nuisance of census workers.

Hardliners protect their... census data?

Once one got past the property managers (and sometimes we didn't), either by informing them that by law they could not impede census work and that there was a fine for obstruction, or by simply ignoring their stupid arguments and gaining unfettered access to their tenants independent of assistance, one finally got to deal with the hardcore census-dodger. After two weeks we knew all their tactics. They played possum. They would avoid taking down notices of visit - little slips of paper put in the door when they could not be initially contacted. Or they would put their notices on the doors on their neighbors, which in addition to being psychoneurotically antisocial, gave them away.

The Census is getting personal

Or they came to the door and resorted to insults - why dont'cha get a real job - or beratings over how busy they were, particularly if they worked for an important or high-tech company. They would refuse to answer outright or engage in argument over invasions of their privacy and government violation of their inalienable rights. This was fueled by the Fox News network's peddling of a continuous stream of programming insinuating that the census was government malfeasance or hiring criminals to go door-to-door.

One well-publicised pundit even famously said he would use a shotgun to scare the census if it came on his property. The sense of cracked entitlement was palpable. It was within their rights, the census-dodgers would insist, to not disclose anything. This kind of civil disobedience was typical, which is to say the petty demonstration of liberty in not taking three minutes to answer a few simple questions always resulted in inconvenience for neighbors who had actually taken the census without fuss.

This was because the census was empowered to ask neighbors for information on the person at the NRFU address next door or across the hall. And so one would explain the fellow next door had been uncooperative, and so would you - ma'am or sir - give us a bit of information on him? In all cases, the census would keep coming back to the same address, until it got what it needed, often settling for as little as a basic population count in a living unit.

YouTube became a repository for video from census resisters. Upon searching you can find them protesting the arrival of the enumerators, often videotaping operations, some people even getting their jollies from badgering temporary government employees. Some seemed to think they were shaking a fist at the government while being upstanding, not realizing they were just taking it out on their neighbors.

The enumerators, you see, were picked right from the communities they worked. I still walk by all the places I hit every week. Ah, the memories. Directly, enumerators also got firsthand evidence of the Great Recession. Outside of seeing increased turnover in apartment complexes, retreat was manifest in other ways. During one week's work, I was bitten by fleas on every sally. I eventually sussed it was happening at an upscale compound of condos where the tenants had a great many dogs as pets. The halls were carpeted and perhaps the property manager had cut back on sprayings. The dogs, in and out on a daily basis, had carried fleas into the common passageways where, sans insecticide, they found the animal and human foot traffic much to their liking. ®