How does Census work differ from other jobs? Let her count the ways

Lucie Amundsen
Lucie Amundsen is a Census taker in Duluth.
Submitted photo

It was just about a year ago that I was taking a standardized bubble test in a windowless room. The proctor overseeing us read from a prepared script in which he was made to gesture to the wall-mounted pencil sharper no fewer than four times. It was a long afternoon.

My test group was an eclectic bunch gathered under the florescent lights in hopes of landing an $11.50-an-hour temporary government job. Painting with my broad brush, I'd peg us as a smattering of retirees, some folks formerly of your high school smoking section and people you might expect to see halfway up a career ladder by now. I'd also wager that the publishing industry -- my industry -- was disproportionately represented.

I had nearly forgotten about it when the U.S. Bureau of Census called me to report for training. And after four intense days in another windowless room, I emerged a shiny new NRFU enumerator. If you didn't catch that job title, it's the acronym for Non Response Follow Up (pronounced NAR-FOO) and enumerator, which my friend Dave loosely defines as one who turns people into numbers.

The curriculum involved the reading of another scripted manual, guiding us through many numbered and lettered government forms. "Please take out a blank D-1 EQ as we conduct our next practice interview." These exercises help ensure that everyone, from foster children to college students to couch surfers, gets his due hash mark.

Also illuminating was the official Enumerator Handbook, offering us helpful safety tips like: "As you walk towards your vehicle, scan beneath the vehicle for persons waiting to charge out at your ankles," or the advice to choose comfortable footwear as "these shoes may come in handy should there be a need to run." It occurred to me that this gig might not pay enough.

Before hitting the pavement, I was geared up with a black Census bag, enough paper to daunt a sturdy Sherpa and a small pencil sharpener for my official government use. I augmented the kit with dog biscuits slipped into the front pocket. Completing my Census look is my official ID. I thought the badge was pretty cool ... until I realized I had to handwrite my name on it with a ballpoint pen.

I've been out in my assigned area for a couple of weeks now. Each address represents a little mystery to puzzle out. Sometimes it's just a busy family behind on their mail (and taking down their Christmas display). Other folks, for reasons I can only guess, quietly elude my knocks, notices and phone calls. When that happens I'm directed to seek out a proxy, usually a helpful neighbor who passes on his or her years of quiet observations to me, the proper governmental authority.

There are also the homes I find abandoned, often in ill repair. These require a little sleuthing with a call to a Realtor, a bank or City Hall. I've chased down a postal worker more than once so I could properly document a particular American Dream turned vacant.

There was one lady who complained bitterly about how much money the Census was going to cost taxpayers. Of course, if she had dropped the form in the mail, the government would have only sprung for a postage stamp to fulfill its constitutional duty. Sending out someone like me averages $57 per survey. Then she thanked me for volunteering with the Census; I didn't correct her.

For the most part, it's a decent temporary job. I set my own hours, walk around neighborhoods and get to do a little problem solving. While I wouldn't say people are exactly delighted to see me, folks have mostly been Minnesota Nice. Some invite me in out of the spring rain.

Of course, there are always exceptions. In lieu of answering the door, one citizen extended a middle finger through a closed blind. As it turns out, the D-1 EQ has no check box for that.

But barking dogs and ankle hazards aside, I'll admit I kind of like the job. As sappy as it sounds, I feel part of something venerable: a nation doing its best to count her people. It's such an old practice that even Jesus' father had to transport his pregnant wife on a donkey to do it. Fortunately, customer service has greatly improved since then. Now, if you misplaced your form, a highly trained, sharp-penciled Census worker in track shoes will gladly come enumerate you.

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Lucie Amundsen is a Census taker in Duluth. She starts an MFA in writing program at Hamline University this fall.

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