The hard — but informative — job of a temporary census worker

Posted on 01 Jul 2010 at 8:15pm

David Webb |  The Rare Reporter

I was in the service of the U.S. government as a federal agent, collecting sensitive information that I must take to my grave without ever revealing it to anyone, for any reason. Talk about a challenge for a reporter, especially one like me who tends to push the envelope to the edge. But obey the law I will, because to violate my oath of office as an enumerator for the U.S. Census 2010 could be punishable by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Just rereading the previous sentence causes me to swallow awfully hard. I already know, without even trying one on, that a prison jumpsuit simply would not be my style, no matter what color it might happen to be. That’s why this piece will be written very carefully, so as not to violate the confidentiality law that governs all census information collected.

My temporary commission expired June 27, after about two months on the job, and I was pretty glad to see that date roll around. What started off as seemingly a fun experience earning me $11 an hour and 50 cents per mile quickly turned out to be a hellish part-time job.

A census of the population is mandated by the U.S. Constitution to be conducted every 10 years for the purpose of determining the congressional representation of each state in the U.S. Congress. It’s been taken every decade since 1790, and I don’t even want to think about what that must have been like before the days of air-conditioned automobiles.

The week of training before they unleashed us on a wary public was pleasant enough. But on the first day we went out for trial runs, I realized it was not going to be quite as easy as I thought. It was a hot and dusty job traveling the roads of East Texas.

On my trial run with my training teammate, I did the driving, and she did the navigating. She kept telling me to be on the lookout for roads named Ushwy and Cord. I finally asked to look at the information myself and realized she was misinterpreting abbreviations for U.S.

Highway and County Road as roads named Ushwy and Cord.

A number of times after I started working on my own I got so lost that I honestly didn’t think I was ever going to find my way back to civilization. What I came to realize is that on country roads, when something happens to a road sign nobody ever bothers to replace it. The same applies to address signs on houses and rural mailboxes.

I also was surprised by the number of abandoned homes I saw everywhere. The contrasts between the neighborhoods of the rich and the poor also was an eye-opener. Now I won’t say what anyone I interviewed on the job had to say about the Census and the federal government, but I can tell you what people who knew what I was doing had to say to me on my own time.

We must be living in an unparalleled time of public mistrust of government at all levels because many, many people apparently believe that the census information that was collected is a violation of their privacy and might be used contrary to its intended purpose. There’s also a lot of concern about the cost of the U.S. Census 2010, which is expected to be in the neighborhood of $14 billion.

Maybe I’m naïve, but I believe the census information collected this year will be kept secret for 72 years until it becomes part of the public domain, and that it will be used appropriately. I also believe it is a useful record for generations to come. I know how fascinated I was to discover information about some of my ancestors living in Alabama in the U.S. Census 1890.

The census records will also provide important information about the numbers of committed partners living in gay and lesbian relationships.

Now, that it is all over, I’m glad to have taken part in a project that has been a part of our nation’s history for more than two centuries. At the same time, I’m glad that it will be another 10 years before the next census rolls around, and I will be too old to enlist.

David Webb is a former staff writer for the Dallas Voice who lives on Cedar Creek Lake now. He is the author of the blog TheRareReporter.blogspot.com. He can be reached at davidwaynewebb@embarqmail.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 02, 2010.

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