Commentary

Census Confidential: Don't Count on It.

By Rhonda Zangwill

I'm ready -- ready to join what the government calls "the largest peacetime mobilization in US history." I've got my official red, white and blue ID tag, my supply of No. 2 pencils, my while-u-were-out notices. I've even got a few custom-printed balloons for the kids. I'm ready to march among the army of enumerators for Census 2000.

But the census, it seems, is not ready for me.

And why? Why indeed? The government could not ask for a better candidate. I am a true believer in the decennial count. Figuring out who's who and where -- and sometimes how, if you get the long form -- is in my view an indispensable government function. How else would we know where to build the schools or hospitals, or, in my case, have the statistics to clamor for a Second Avenue subway?

To my surprise, not everyone is so excited. My own usually accommodating mother, who insisted she returned her form, sneered at "these people's persistence" when they came knocking. My sister-in-law objected not to the census, but to my enthusiasm for the door-to-door. Enumerator does not register high on her Richter Scale of smart career moves.

In truth I was not always such a civic cheerleader. But then the Federal onslaught began. Fresh-faced census recruiters started to beckon -- in the post office, in the bank, at the green market. Posters and flyers appeared everywhere, even in my own building. I got two solicitations through the mail. And then, the piece de resistance: an insert in my grocery bag exclaiming CENSUS 2000 EXCITING JOBS! EARN XTRA MONEY! CALL TODAY!

That did it. Fired by the promise of $18.50 an hour, I gave in to my democratic fervor.

My civic streak led me to a church social hall where about 40 people sat poised for the qualifying test. We had 30 minutes to answer 28 questions. I was seated with an engaging young woman who had already taken the test twice. She was full of theories about the science of multiple choice.

As we madly began to fill in our little circles, the hall's excellent acoustics amplified the chorus of grunts, sighs and (occasional) expletives emanating from around the room. Melded together, these sounds formed an oddly comforting kind of white noise.

Just as our tester cried "15 minutes!" a low rumbling filled the room. Seconds later it erupted into a profound, full-bodied snore that ricocheted from table to table. No matter. None of us had a moment to waste - not when there were long decimals to multiply. Fortunately our sleeper cooperated and remained blessedly silent until, with only one minute remaining, he let loose a volley of thunderous, syncopated snorts. That did it. The entire room broke up, even our previously dour examiner.

Weeks later, when I found out my score - 97 - I thought the call would surely come soon. It did not. Weeks passed. No call. Ever optimistic, I called them. A pleasant voice had me on and off hold for a while, then transferred me into limbo. This happened twice. I tried another number and dropped directly into voice mail which cut off in mid-instruction.

Eventually I found a real person who was surprisingly chatty. His job was to recruit as many test-takers as possible. "We've got a quota," he said. "and I'm behind. Wanna take it again? How about your friends?" I declined. "What I really want is a job, what about that?" I asked. "Oh who knows," he replied, "after the test we don't care about you anymore. They don't even let us talk to the field people. I hear it helps if you're diverse. You're not half Russian, a quarter Indian and also on crutches and maybe missing a pinkie are you?"

I was beginning to doubt the sincerity of the government.

But when the phone rang a few days later, I instantly forgave all and rushed to the office. Like any government bureaucracy it was covered in paper. Harried workers moved tottering piles from one place to another, while copiers and printers spewed out more reams to be stacked. Even the desks were made of paper, cardboard to be precise, double thick and corrugated. Obviously recycling was the dominant aesthetic for the Census. To close up shop all one needed was an urge to crush and plenty of twine.

My intake worker took another view. "Don't kid yourself," she said, "These desks breed the biggest rats you've ever seen." Then she handed me the first of the twenty forms a part-time, short-term, don't-even-think-about-a-pension government job requires.

Training lasted five days. Twenty-five hours, paid. More, if you consider that the Feds also pay for the commute time and a few home study hours. But it was only after the lectures, after the role-playing, after the "census bloopers" video, even after the swearing to uphold the Constitution, that we learned we were not guaranteed a job.

"It depends," said our trainer, "on their need, and, of course, your attitude in class." She was a deeply dimpled young woman who nonetheless had a bit of the benign dictator in her. She doled out favors, like an extra long lunch, and demerits for bad behavior in equal measure.

Still, I wasn't worried. Unlike some of my compatriots, I didn't take cell phone calls during class, or insist on wearing sunglasses, or skip out early. I even aced the pop quiz on our last training day. Well, I missed one question, but I still believe that the wording was ambiguous. No matter, I know I excelled at the practice field work. That's when our trainer sent us out in groups to knock on doors. I thought of my trio as a kind of Mod Squad for the new millennium -- two men, one African-American, one Asian, and me, a decade older and a foot shorter than either -- gamely going forth to ferret out census "non-respondents."

And when the trainer bade us good luck on Friday, and sent us off with our official black canvas US Census bags, stuffed with forms and booklets and supplies, I figured I would start the following Monday.

That was a month ago. Calls to the cardboard office are futile. I have long conversations with sympathetic people who plead ignorance. No one knows anything for certain, but they are full of opinions. Sometimes they make vague promises. "Surely you will be called soon," they coo, "maybe for the next operation."

In 2010?

Yesterday was the last straw. I ran into an enumerator in my own building. I told him my sad tale. He commiserated. Then, just as we were taught in the training, he asked if I would mind being the "knowledgeable neighbor" who would give him the scoop, statistically speaking, on the out-of-towners on my floor.

I agreed, but when it comes to that pledge the Census made me take about guarding against enemies foreign and domestic, I don't think this really counts.

Rhonda Zangwill still hopes to get a job with the Census Bureau

###

Check out the Feature Archives!