What I Learned From Being a Census Taker
If you don’t believe there is systemic racism in this country, take the № 19 bus to Hunters Point
For six weeks I walked, drove, biked and bused around San Francisco, counting people for the 2020 Census. I was part of an army of half a million enumerators whose job was to visit the tens of millions of households across the country that had not yet responded to the Census — a massive undertaking the Census Bureau officially calls Nonresponse Followup, or NRFU. After attending an orientation session and completing about 20 hours of online training I was set loose on the streets of San Francisco armed with an iPhone, a clipboard and a black satchel filled with forms.
I visited luxury high-rises with uniformed doormen, lushly landscaped townhouses with rooftop terraces and pet spas, SROs where the hallways smelled of marijuana and urine and residents hung out on the sidewalk in front of the building, and public housing projects where the walls were scarred with graffiti and the yards littered with discarded appliances.
I met people from Spain and Sri Lanka, Japan and Jamaica, England and Eritrea, Nigeria and Nicaragua, China and Cuba, Korea, Brazil, India and Mexico. I met straight, gay and trans people (even though there was no category on the Census for the latter).
I encountered people who cursed me and slammed the door in my face, and others who invited me in (I always declined because of Covid) and thanked me for my service. I interviewed people who said they didn’t know the names of their roommates, the age of their spouse or, in one case, their own birthdate.
Third World Country
For those who believe that systemic racism doesn’t exist in this country (are you listening Messrs. Trump, Pence and Barr?), I suggest you take the № 19 bus out to Bayview-Hunters Point, a neighborhood in the southeast corner of San Francisco cut off from the rest of the city by Interstates 101 and 280. As I got off the bus near the old Naval Shipyard, I felt as if I had entered a foreign country — an impoverished Third World country. A jumble of ugly low-rise buildings are haphazardly scattered across a weedy hillside with no apparent regard for form or function. Narrow paths, some paved and others dirt, crisscross the hills, connecting the buildings.
The scarcity is plain to see. Shabby buildings. Overgrown playing fields. Doorbells that don’t ring. Rusted fences and broken basketball hoops. Discarded TVs and hairdryers. Abandoned bicycles and cars.
I saw virtually no white faces, and the few I did see were either cops or Comcast workers. If T, P & B and their ilk are to be believed, this is just the luck of the draw. But to most people with eyes, ears and half a heart it’s a reflection of a failed system, a system that keeps people of color trapped in substandard housing and hardscrabble lives.
A lot of folks didn’t bother to answer the door. Some watched me suspiciously from behind drawn curtains. Those who did were often not disposed to answer questions from a middle-aged white guy with a clipboard. When you tell them, as we were instructed to do, that completing the Census was important so that their community would be fairly represented in Congress and receive the federal funds it deserves for senior centers, public transit and the like, they would give me a long, cool look. Take a look around, I could almost hear them thinking. How did the last Census work out for us? And the one before that?
Others were more welcoming. I interviewed one man from Nigeria who had a name half the length of the alphabet and lived in an apartment with six other Nigerians with equally lengthy names. They were in the middle of dinner and a piquant aroma was wafting out of the kitchen, but he patiently spelled and respelled everyone’s name and provided the other information I requested — birthdates, genders, ethnicity and so on.
Although we were authorized to work as late as 9 p.m., I always tried to get home before sundown. But one night I got caught out in the Point, as residents sometimes call the neighborhood, as darkness fell. To make matters worse, the battery on my phone died so I had no idea where or when the next bus was coming (and, hard as I tried, I could not summon an Uber telepathically). A group of young Black men were hanging out down the street and, I have to admit, I was feeling anxious. Fortunately, I was able to flag down a passing bus. I thanked the Black driver for stopping and thought to myself, would a white driver have done the same if the shoe had been on the other foot? I doubt it.
Our job as enumerators was not always made easier by the powers that be at the Census Bureau, which was constantly sending out mixed signals. One day we would get a message urging us to work longer hours, and even offering bonuses if we did, but the next morning I would be told there was no work that day because of an insufficient workload. Some days I would sign up for an eight-hour shift and get only a handful of cases; other days I would be available for only a few hours and would be assigned more than 100 cases. And then there were days when I spent more time on the bus traveling to widely divergent parts of the city than I did knocking on doors.
More than once I was told to dial into a conference call only to find scores of other enumerators waiting for a manager who never showed. One evening I got a message asking me if I wanted to join a special project to count the city’s homeless population, but in order to participate I would have to complete eight hours of training — by the next day.
There were occasions when I would “close” a case, meaning I had found someone to complete the Census or the household could not be counted for various reasons — the address didn’t exist, the unit was vacant or the occupant refused to cooperate, etc. — only to find the address reappear on my case list the next day.
My confidence in the accuracy of the count was further undermined by the fact that a lot of people I contacted — 25 percent or more, I estimate — said they had already completed the Census online or through the mail. When I would mention this to my supervisor he would assure me that most of these people were just giving that as an excuse because they didn’t want to be bothered or didn’t trust that their information would be kept confidential. While this might have been the case for some, I suspect most were telling the truth, which raises the question: What happened to the completed surveys? Were they somehow lost or not properly recorded? More than likely the data had not yet been entered into the system by the time I was assigned the case, but it wasn’t reassuring.
My direct supervisor was a nice guy who was trying his best, but he was often just as much in the dark as the rest of us about what was going on. In fact I came to feel more sorry for him than for myself because he was getting it from both ends — besieged by calls from confused enumerators and getting conflicting information from his superiors. And he seemed to be on call 24/7.
No doubt the disorganization was partly due to the pandemic, which delayed the start of the count by several months and made the process far more complicated than it would have been otherwise. And the uncertainty created by the Trump administration’s efforts (ultimately successful) to end the count prematurely did not help. Still, the Bureau had 10 years to prepare for the count, and it should have been better organized.
But despite all the frustrations of the job, I’m glad I did it. I feel like I made a small contribution to society and, besides, the pay wasn’t bad — 30 bucks an hour, extra for nights and Sundays. But the best part of the gig was the opportunity to meet people I wouldn’t ordinarily meet. Take Spider Girl and Tie-Dye, two little girls I came across playing on Harbor Road in Hunters Point. When I asked them if I could take their picture, they nodded and immediately crouched down on one knee, one hand planted on the pavement in front of them, the other outstretched behind them, as if they had been waiting all day for someone to ask them that question. They were ready for their closeup.