I don’t have a death wish, but I’m always interested in new experiences, so being a census taker or “enumerator” in Census Bureau parlance sounded interesting and appealed to my sense of civic duty. And sure, the $21 an hour plus mileage didn’t hurt. About 240,000 of my fellow U.S. citizens joined me as an enumerator in 2020, down by about half from 2010 due to COVID-19.
It is pretty tough work. Not only because of political roadblocks and the current health crisis, but because most people just don’t want to talk to someone knocking at their door. Often times I was sent far from Frederick to work in unfamiliar communities that didn’t have enough census takers. I worked in everything from the blazing hot sun to pouring rain. Census takers are pushed hard by the full-time supervisors, always encouraging us to work fast, “close” cases, and not take no for an answer.
Initially, the work started easy enough—leaving ‘notice of visit’ flyers to those not at home and talking to agreeable people who legitimately overlooked completing the census.
Soon, though, the work became much harder. The remaining people to count were evasive and not so agreeable. Many claimed to have already done the census online. Census officials assured us this was not the case and encouraged us to keep pushing. I was never sure who to believe. I did push ahead and performed reasonably well, talking many people into doing the census ‘again’ with me because they obviously wanted their voice to be heard. After enumerating these hesitant folks, however, the work became almost impossible. The people left to count obviously didn’t want to be counted. Many were belligerent and threatening.
My most memorable difficult case consisted of residents of a ramshackle townhouse community in Poolesville. I should have known I was in trouble when I read the notes from a fellow enumerator’s previous visit to the address. “I think the people at this place might be crazy. When I knocked on the door, they knocked back even harder.” I was intrigued. No one had enumerated this house, and I wanted to be the one who did!
I had an ace in the hole. Census enumerators are allowed to use “proxies” to enumerate hard to complete addresses. Proxies are nearby neighbors who have at least a little information about their neighbors and are willing to tell you what they know. Unfortunately, it was equally clear in the notes that nearby neighbors might not be so willing to comment on these people either. “I don’t want to get involved,” “I’ve never talked to those people,” “They are not very friendly,” read some of the additional notes.
Undeterred, I strode up to the house and knocked. No answer. I knocked again, but this time I could hear people talking behind the door. When I peeked in, a mom and two kids stared back. When I knocked and peeked in a third time they were hiding behind some curtains. As I began to step away to find a neighbor, the man of the house pulled into his parking space. “Get your ass off my property right now and don’t come back or I’ll remove you myself,” he threatened. I assured him I had every right to be on his property, that I was with the Census Bureau and just wanted to know how many people lived at his place. He repeated his threat again as he began to get out of his van. Discretion being the better part of valor, I began to depart. To my relief, he got back in his van and left. As he did, I made sure he saw me walk up to his next-door neighbor’s house. I hoped he knew that we would be talking about him. I finally did get the information I needed and closed the case.
This was my worst brush with a hostile citizen, but there were others nearly as worrisome. One person railed about the poor use of his tax money that kept sending people to his house when he told us over and over that he has done the survey already. Two people were upset that Trump wanted to deport them even though they were here legally. An older gentleman offered “I’ve never done the census in my life. Maryland has been gerrymandered to death. That’s why I’m moving.” One young fellow at a new development used his Ring doorbell to size me up and said, “You people need to quit hounding us. Nobody cares about this crap.” And, as I left one proxy who provided info on his townhouse neighbor, I could see the neighbor running out of his home and berating the proxy for provided any information at all.
It wasn’t all bad, though. One nice older gentleman in Dickerson wanted to talk about how the census helped us during the Revolutionary War. One fellow came running out of his house to give me a bottle of water. One little girl did the same with a popsicle at the behest of her dad. One scantily clad woman answered the door and made no effort to cover up. We didn’t cover that in training.