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The Census Experience: Down and Out City vs. Comfortable Suburb

June 7th, 2010 at 05:58 pm

By now, you may have come across some of my earlier posts about what it's like working for the Census Bureau.

To recap, I worked 5 weeks for the Census Bureau covering my hometown, an affluent suburb I know my way around pretty well after having lived here for 15 years. (Observation #1: People with money can be just as nasty as anyone else, but I must say that 98% of the people I met were cooperative, or at least polite.)

The bulk of census work wrapped up in the past week or so, depending on what town you were working in. A lot of people were already let go, but the more productive census workers were offered an opportunity for more work performing "cleanup" in other towns where the census response rate was lower.

Generally, the more affluent suburbs have a pretty high response rate of about 75% or higher while the urban areas in my state have had a much lower response rate of as low as 45%.

I was one of those people who was offered additional work.

So yesterday we had a preliminary meeting of a new crew put together to tackle cleanup work in my region. Prior to yesterday, I was told it was probably this town, or that town, but yesterday I learned it was a certain city about a 40-minute ride for me which has the distinction of having not only the highest unemployment rate but also the highest foreclosure rate in the state.

Although I had asked my old crew leader not to assign me work in this city, it turned out that this was the city that needed working, so it was a matter of, if you want to do more work, this is where it's going to be. So I said ok. I like to have an open mind about things and at least try something once. I don't ever want to be close-minded about anything in life because I believe it closes you off to new experiences and limits your growth as a person.

I thought I would give it a shot and see if it was something I could do. And I made SURE not to tell my mother where I was working because she would get all "concerned."

So at our morning meeting today, we were given our assignment binders. There were about 6 men in my group; I was the only woman (first red flag?), and we were all to tackle different parts of the city.

One of the crew leaders who I'd spoken with about my preference not to work in any bad parts of the city said he didn't believe my assigned area was "bad," although he hadn't driven the roads personally.

There was talk at the meeting of chained pit bulls, entire streets filled with foreclosure after foreclosure (which presents its own unique challenges to a census worker) and gang members on street corners who would demand to know who you were and why you were there. There was a certain amount of joking going on with these comments, but it certainly did nothing to ease my concerns!

Right from the get go, I knew this wasn't going to be easy. I used both a street map and the census-supplied map and neither showed the location of the mall where our meeting was taking place, so i could at least depart knowing where I was going!

I found my neighborhood, but got tripped up because I didn't initially realize that some of my target addresses were on Baldwin Street and I was actually cruising a borderline section of Baldwin AVENUE.

I worked about 5 hours on the streets of the city and was able to complete 10 interviews, which is a respectable rate.

Although nothing "bad" happened to me, I have to say I felt uncomfortable in this environment. It's one thing to drive in and out of the city with a certain destination in mind, but in this case I was all over my assigned neighborhood, getting in and out of my car, wandering into decrepit apartment buildings, etc.

I worried about my own personal safety and the safety of my car parked out on the street when I was in certain apartment buildings trying to do multiple addresses.

Observation #2: I anticipate having trouble completing the remaining 20 or so addressees after my first go-round today. Why? It's really due to the Census' disregard for its own rules.

Example: During training, they told us we were allowed to make UP TO a maximum of 3 in-person visits to an address and/or up to a maximum of 3 phone calls in an effort to make contact with the residents of a given address. After that, they don't want you going back because some people you will never get a hold of, for various reasons and I guess they recognized the futility of trying forever for a small number of addresses.

Each time you visit a home or attempt a phone contact, you record the day and time you did so and the result of your effort, whether that means leaving a note of your visit with a request they call you (they hardly ever do), an actual interview or a "refusal." A refusal is when someone absolutely refuses to provide any information despite all attempts you make to talk them into it.

So these rules worked well enough for about 3 weeks; then one day we were told that the Bureau was no longer accepting refusals, meaning that you were forced to go back repeatedly to get the info one way or the other. (You're instructed to seek out neighbors to use as proxies to provide what info they can.)

So intent was the Bureau in no longer accepting refusals that they instructed us to erase the 3rd entry recorded for an in-person visit! (Everything is written in pencil.)

So they're breaking their own rules and putting census workers in a real bind (and I believe that's why 2 people in my affluent hometown called the cops on me after I left).

Observation #3: Here's how the Census' disregard for its own rules could put its temporary employees in harm's way: Today I knocked on the door of a house. Two young black dudes answered the door, one with a phone in his hand. They quickly told me their sister owned the house but was in the hospital and probably wouldn't be home for a week and while I tried to explain that I didn't need to speak to the owner of the house, that they could speak with me, they had no interest in doing so and the one with the phone kept saying I'm on the phone and was getting annoyed.

Now it would be too complicated to try to explain to these gentlemen that if they don't talk to me then I will have to come back to bother them again becus the Census Bureau doesn't take no for an answer.

Observation #4: But I'll tell you this. There's a big difference between possibly antagonizing a housewife in my hometown vs. pissing off two bros from the 'hood. They had made it clear I was unwelcome, but due to the new Census directive, it could put me in a tenuous position when I return to the house.

I had to enter several apartment buildings with long, dark corridors that really made me nervous. You just don't know what you're getting into.

One thing I learned today: People in my hometown are much more trusting of strangers knocking at their door. When I worked in the city, people really studied my badge very closely. After knocking at another address and no one answering the door, I started walking back to my car. Something told me to turn around, and as I did, i glanced up at the second floor window, which was open. I caught someone watching me but when I looked up, they hid behind a curtain. I yelled up, "Hi, I'm with the Census Bureau," but they wouldn't show themselves. Now how do I make contact when I have to return tomorrow??

I chose to do this work, to at least give working in this city a shot because 1) I've been out of work a long time and need the money and 2) I have to be careful of giving the appearance of "quitting" Census work when more work is still available to me because that could jeopardize my remaining unemployment benefits.

I have re-read my state's unemployment benefits several times over and it does appear that if you quit a job because of a reasonable concern about personal safety, for instance, that could be considered a valid reason for quitting. Or, if your employer changes the rules mid-way through your work. That, too, applies to my case. But all of this is judged by an unemployment administrator and is subject to interpretation, which is what makes me a little nervous. There is no way I can jeopardize my unemployment becus that is what I'm surviving on right now.

But after much thought and feeling on the fence, I called my crew leader and explained the situation. He was very understanding. (I know there were people who turned down the idea of working in this city at the get-go and wouldn't even consider it.) At least I gave it a try. He said he sort of anticipated my phone call. A single woman walking the streets is different from a man doing the same thing. While I believe I appear less threatening to people as a stranger, I'm also a greater target.

So the crew leader offered to try to put together an assignment binder that would still be filled with addresses in this city, but it would be addresses on the outskirts, bordering neighboring towns and more single-family homes, less apartments. In other words, better areas.

Or, he said, you can just stop working, it's up to you. Mindful of my remaining unemployment benefits, I told him if it wasn't an awful lot of trouble to organize a new binder for me, I'd really appreciate it. He said, well, someone's got to do those other addresses, why not you? (Nice guy.)

So, after planning to call it quits and take my chances with the unemployment office, it looks like I'll give it another shot tomorrow.

I do like the money. It's nothing like what I'm used to making, but when you're not making much of anything at all, the pay looks good when you accumulate some hours. Plus, I'm making quite a bit of money on the mileage reimbursement and the nice thing about that is that you're not taxed on the mileage reimbursement. For example, I traveled 51 miles today and at .50 a mile, I'll get $25 back. With my thrifty Honda, I maybe spent $5 on gas, leaving me with a net $20 tax-free profit in one day.

And in case you missed my 5th observation in an earlier post, the people who are MOST POLITE to census workers are those who weren't born in this country. That's because where they come from, government officials can make life very difficult for them and it pays to be nice to the lowly census worker. Many Americans, on the other hand, take democracy for granted: they don't bother to vote, and they close the door in your face, knowing nothing's going to happen to them.

8 Responses to “The Census Experience: Down and Out City vs. Comfortable Suburb”

  1. Frugaltexan75 Says:

    Wow! I'm glad you made it safely through the day and now have a more safe assignment.

  2. Analise Says:

    Good luck on the new assignment. And stay safe!

  3. whitestripe Says:

    wow! it's hard for me to imagine a 'bad suburb' because the only place i can think of where i would not walk alone at night is our closest city's nightclub area - which during the day is a gorgeous place filled with cafes and cute shops. glad you got a more safer place to work next time though!

  4. HouseHopeful Says:

    WOw... very nice of him to work up a new binder for you, though!

  5. ceejay74 Says:

    I'm glad you got through OK and got a new assignment since you didn't feel safe. Though I wonder if all that talk at the meeting got you feeling more nervous than necessary about the area. Makes me think of a part in "Bowling for Columbine" where Michael Moore is taken to the middle of South Central LA by another white guy, and they stand on the corner and chat about the fear that's been put into people by the bad-news-mongering media. The potential for crime is everywhere, but it just feels more dangerous to go to the inner city and other such areas.

  6. Homebody Says:

    I had a census worker come to my door and it was very odd that he wanted to find out about the people across the street from me, nothing about DH and I. I was very vague as I felt very uncomfortable being questioned about my neighbors.

  7. PatientSaver Says:

    Homebody, the census worker who came to your door was following standard procedure. He didn't ask questions about your household becus you apparently already mailed in your survey. Census workers are trained to approach neighbors if they cannot obtain information or complete the survey with their assigned residents.

  8. Homebody Says:

    Yes we did complete our survey. The young man was very polite I have to say. I talked to him through my door window since my policy is not to open my door to strangers of any kind, even women. Keeps you from having to talk to people you don't want to talk too! Plus it helps my dog is standing beside me barking. The week before I flew up here to Seattle, we were unindated with local political candidates and their volunteers.

    PS I am a friendly person, just hate being bothered in my home.

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