A Census-ational Summer

It's hard to believe my 13-week stint working as a Census enumerator has come to an end. And I can't believe I actually went through with it -- but I'm glad I did. It was an enriching experience that was fascinating (sometimes frustrating) and exhilarating (but often exhausting).

After spending 30 years working in corporate America, insulated from the "unwashed masses" (i.e., clients' customers), the thought of interacting with them face-to-face made me somewhat hesitant. But at the same time, the researcher in me was curious about taking a peek behind the curtain to see how Census sausage was made.

As an enumerator, my job was to collect Census information from households that had not returned their questionnaires. This operation was known as NRFU, or Non-Response Follow-Up. (There was a 45% non-response in Manhattan and about 30% nationally). Neighborhoods were divided into sub-groups, each with 6-10 enumerators assigned to a four- or five-block area. Enumerators were usually assigned their neighborhoods, which made it easier for us to go out at any time of the day.



A week of training was conducted before we set out, and the seriousness of the job was impressed upon me the first afternoon when we were all fingerprinted. We were also required to sign a confidentiality agreement that carried with it stiff penalties for revealing any personal information collected during interviews.

Oddly, training materials were geared largely to suburban settings. While we were instructed on how to go about surveying trailer parks and private homes and received safety tips about car travel, there was very little about how to approach apartment buildings. Minimal guidance was offered on how to negotiate buzzer systems or cajole a doorman or building superintendent into letting us into a building.

Although it was relatively easy getting people to cooperate once you were at their door, getting to the door proved quite a challenge. With buzzers there was street noise to contend with and some buildings had poorly wired systems that made it nearly impossible to hear. The biggest challenge, however, was being at the mercy of tenants. Often, they didn't reply once you stated who you were or they would shut you off before you finished explaining the purpose of your visit.

I'd usually put in three to four hours of work each day (weekends too) but it felt like a full day, probably because I was always "on" as each visit was like a performance, a one-man show of sorts. After I was done my adrenaline would be pumping, just as it did when I completed a client presentation. To get a completed Enumerator Questionnaire gave me a real rush.

If people refused to cooperate, we had to be polite and diplomatic while getting the point across that "no" wasn't an option. Compliance was mandated by law (as per the Constitution); not cooperating was comparable to refusing to pay taxes.

Under no circumstances were we to call someone an "idiot," "pinhead" or "un-American" -- no matter how much they deserved it (I jest). Some respondents were very gracious; others were downright nasty, treating us like we were waiters or squeegee washers.

However, I came to realize that the way we were treated was not necessarily because we were Census workers, but simply because these people had nasty dispositions -- or just had a bad day. When enumerators got together, we had a chance to share our experiences. The Starbucks in my neighborhood became Census Central, since it was the most convenient and congenial place for us to have meetings with our crew leaders.

As a researcher, I appreciated the fact that there was a second phase whose purpose was to check work done in the first phase, whereby any unit designated as "vacant" or "delete" was rechecked. When I started in research at Y&R in the 1980s, we always checked each other's work (in the days of adequate staffing). It was reassuring to see it practiced here.

There was also a staff of Census workers whose job was to make spot calls to verify that a Census worker had enumerated a given household. Furthermore, we were required to make multiple attempts at contacting each household before seeking a proxy. These attempts had to be made at different times of the day.

When it came to paperwork, I believe those with prior corporate experience had an edge over enumerators with different backgrounds (e.g., writers, actors, and waiters). They seemed to get tripped up by the large amount of paperwork and the attention to detail it required. Not only did the Census questionnaire have to be filled out meticulously (letters and numbers had to be written in a certain style -- and only in pencil) but forms had to be filled out for all other aspects of the job, including a daily time sheet.

Occasionally we had to write e-mails to landlords or building management companies explaining what we were doing and why they were required to assist us.

Despite the hurdles encountered, I completed about 250 interviews. Upon finishing my stint, a friend who works for a large research company offered to pass my name on to the person who hires people to do field research. I begged off because I figured it was hard enough getting people to cooperate for a survey mandated by law. I couldn't imagine what it would be like trying to convince people to do it for the benefit of marketers.

My Census experience was a rewarding one. It not only allowed me to participate in a vital civic task, it also made me feel better-connected to my community. And although there were frustrations, when I reflect upon it, the various challenges made getting a completed interview that much sweeter.

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