Last fall I filled out an application to be a U.S Census taker. I was newly retired and had the time. But mainly, I felt it was my civic duty. In prior decades, I had been a Vietnam protester, a women’s lib advocate, an outspoken New Yorker born in the shadow of Columbia University and fully identifying with the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) of the 1970s.
Now I saw a country more divided than ever, with racial tensions heightening, and unemployment surging. Could I actually make a difference for those whom the Census affected – the underrepresented, the marginalized, the uncounted? My 1970s self applauded!
But I soon discovered that becoming a Census taker was more than hopping in my car with a clipboard in hand and patriotic zeal in my heart.
I had to attend a training class followed by a comprehensive nine-hour module on how to be an exemplary “enumerator”. This is the first time that technology has been used in the Census. The interview process would be prompted by questions on a government issued phone with software prompting you from one screen to the next based on answers to questions. You are capturing data that will be submitted for analysis by our government. And with over 170,000 Covid related deaths, the demographic changes in our country have been profound and dollars need to be allocated in the best way possible – for senior centers, hospitals, and schools.
After completing the module and taking a quiz covering the basic material, I was deemed ready to hit the road and be in the field. And my particular field turned out to be mostly just that. I was assigned the rural countryside of Columbia County in upstate New York.
My first case on my first day showed exactly how rural my territory was. My GPS led me to a corn field where it announced with great satisfaction that I had arrived. I stared at the wide open space, my patriotic zeal a bit dampened. I soon discovered that addresses were often incorrect, that many houses had no numbers, and that there were residents of trailer parks and RVs who wanted to remain off the grid.
But I also learned that whether rural or urban, people are more alike than they are different. And everyone has a story. I am a definitive type A personality, and I relished the opportunity to learn these stories – people’s names, their ages and origin, who they live with, and how many were under the same roof. It was like being an investigator without having the background for it.
Some of the kindest, sweetest people I met were missing teeth and eating cheese doodles for dinner. In this socially distanced, Covid world, most people seemed to want to connect, to interact with another human being. I saw how many lonely people there were out there, pandemic or no pandemic.
One woman I met was just pulling into her dusty, dirt driveway. After I identified myself, she asked if I could wait a moment while she checked on her three kids and her mom. I discovered she was in her 40s, single, and had just moved back into her childhood home. At the end of the interview, I thought she would have asked me to stay for dinner if not for Covid. We were probably on complete opposite sides politically, but we had connected – and all while filling out Census forms!
Then there have been times when I realized I was enumerating an actual celebrity. Once I spoke to a famous movie director/producer and did not let on that I knew who he was. It was an experience I will treasure and it never would have happened had I not been wearing my U.S Census badge!
I have also encountered those who did not take kindly to a stranger approaching their home, regardless of the clearly visible credentials. Once a hostile property owner appeared out of nowhere at a multi unit complex, telling me I was soliciting and that he was going to call the police. I calmly told him I was with the U.S Census Bureau, doing my job, and to please go ahead and call them. I stood my ground. I then heard him mutter under his breath, “f ing bitch” followed by a louder pronouncement that I had three minutes to leave the property. (I took my sweet time!)
As a 2020 Census Taker, I never know what to expect when I get into my car. But that’s the joy of it! Everyone has a story and the hours fly by. Before I know it, I have gone through 25-30 cases and completed my required interviews. I have driven past corn fields and have heard cases that would break your heart. But I have also witnessed our nation’s diversity and resiliency, as well as our need to connect, and yes, even unite.
This is my small part in being an American and, whatever good comes from getting this Census right, I know I have contributed.