Sunday, August 1, 2010

The life of a census enumerator

(Off to work.)

"Hello.  My name is Tom Gavin and I work for the U.S. Census Bureau.  Is this 455 Elm Street?  And were you living here on April 1 of this year?"  And so it goes, day after day, week after week, all summer long.   I knock on door after door, finding that most people are not home, leaving a NV (Notice of Visit) to call me on my cell, completing Enumerator Questionnaires---all for $13.00 per hour plus $.50 per mile reimbursement for the miles I drive.

I thought this might be an interesting experience; it has had its moments, and I've met some pretty nice dogs.  But for the most part, it is pretty boring.  Most people are happy to give out the information I require about their name, age, date of birth, and so forth.  You know, the 10 questions or so that we all ask and that most of you have answered, either by writing it on the form you got in April or by telling a person like me who appeared at your door.  Some of you have gone through this three times this summer.  Don't ask me why.  I just work here.  I am only doing what the Constitution of the United States requires the government to do every 10 years: count all the people living in the U.S. on April 1, and collect some ancillary data.

For some people it seems like a major inconvenience for me to ask these questions.  It only takes about five minutes, and it is only done once per decade.  Some interviewees act as though they are the busiest humans on earth, and they could not possibly take a few minutes to talk.  Others are obviously desperate to talk to someone about anything.  One lady took 15 minutes to complain about the crack cocaine-selling neighbors she had until they were evicted.  She feared for her life much of the time.  Then, she rambled on about an event in California where the police used a TASER on a man who was already down on the ground, and how terrible that was, and what is wrong with the police.  "Mam, I work for the Census Bureau."  I had a farmer all but grab me by the shirt and tell me to tell the President that farmers are getting a raw deal in this country.  That most dairy farms have gone under because of the price of milk.  "Sir, I work for the Census Bureau, and I don't know Barack very well." 

One guy told me that he had been on the internet a lot lately and that people really hate me.  Geesh, these people have not communicated their hatred to me directly, and I check my mail every day.  He was mad, and these people were mad, because this entire census operation was costing taxpayers $450,000!  I said, "Only $450,000?"  And he repeated the amount as though it was the largest number he had ever heard.  I didn't have the heart to tell him that the grand total was more like $14.5 billion.  If they knew that, those people would really hate me.  I would have to change my name to remain safe in a world where every U.S. citizen was gunning for Tom Gavin for committing such a huge sum of taxpayers' money.  I would have to dye my hair, gain 40 pounds, and wear plaid golfing slacks to go into town without being recognized.

I thought I would sign up for this gig, in part, to sample the residents of upstate New York.  To find out what people were thinking about the government and the world and their place in it.  But I'm not getting a strong signal about people in general.  Humans come in all shapes and sizes.  Some are pissed at the world and everything in it, probably because their life is a mess.  Some seem happy to help, feel good about contributing to this operation, and offer me iced tea.  Some are just plain lonely and want to talk to anyone who shows up about anything at all.  Some appreciate that enumerating the people in the country is an important exercise and were disturbed that I had not gotten to them sooner.  And still others couldn't care if the country went to hell in a hand basket tomorrow.  One young guy was gloating over the fact that he had been working for 10 years and he had never paid a cent of income tax--ever.  "Sir, I also work for the IRS."  Just kidding.

I don't regret working for the Census Bureau one bit.  I'm just a lowly enumerator like tens of thousands of others across the country.  But the job has given me the credentials to approach my neighbors, look them in the eye, and ask them some personal questions.  And while I detest the degrading effect that large numbers of people are having on the earth, I find individuals worthy of respect.  I disagree with some, I empathize with many, and I share a common territory with all.  And tomorrow morning, I will drive onto Main Street in a nearby hamlet, and ask those living there to share a bit of their time.


  1. Hi Dr. Tom - great info here and what a great way to get to know how to approach people as I'm somewhat shy. I love your top picture - where was that taken?

    Thanks for joining Bloggers Cafe on Facebook - glad we got to know you and see your blog - keep up the great work.

    Skype: nancyradlinger

  2. Nancy: I was on a horse trip along the beach at Playa Tortuga, Costa Rica last February.

  3. I shared this with my Mom who is currently a census enumerator.

  4. Thanks Matt. She should relate to much of what I describe.