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Down (South) for the count: A Census worker's odyssey

A Connecticut retiree reveals what he saw — and what it takes to get the job done — on a 48-day, multi-state journey as a census worker.

  • 9 min to read
Down (South) for the count: A Census worker's odyssey
(Source photos: Portrait by H John Voorhees III; other images courtesy of the author and via Shutterstock.com)

It was an intriguing offer. Flexible hours. Work from home. Decent pay; mileage. The chance to meet interesting people.

Sure, I’m retired and can be a Census Bureau “enumerator” or “door knocker.” In the fall of 2019, I filled out a simple, online application, but was denied because I was an elected town official. I lost the 2019 election, so I re-applied and was accepted.

Then COVID-19 hit and everything was put on hold.

The census’ premise is simple — count everyone. Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution requires, every 10 years, a count of all people living in the U.S. The count determines how many seats each state has in the House of Representatives, as well as how federal aid to states is apportioned. 

Since the first census in 1790, the questions have changed. In 1860, a separate schedule listed slaves owned. At the turn of the last century, questions asked about ethnic origin — where your parents were born and what language they spoke. In 1930, one question asked if there was a radio in the house.

But the premise was to count everyone.

This year, the Trump administration sought to add a question on citizenship; the Supreme Court rejected that. Then, the Commerce Department tried to shorten the time for the in-person count; that, too, was contested in the courts. The continuing court battle meant I never was sure when I would be out of a job.

Two-thirds of all households responded by internet, phone or email. What about the rest? That’s where I joined the workforce, one of some 240,000 Non-Response Follow Up census enumerators — talk about being a very small cog in a very large bureaucratic machine!

Accepted; background checked; finger printed; sworn in as a federal employee; sworn to secrecy for life, not to reveal any Personal Identifying Information; 20-plus hours of training, in person and online. On Sept. 1, I hit the road in Litchfield County.

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Gerard Monaghan outside his home in New Milford.

From New Milford to Sharon to Cornwall to Goshen to Salisbury to Canaan. Huge houses, smaller houses, farms, apartments, summer cottages, gated communities. Main roads, back roads. Nice people, for the most part, including a woman who handed me a bunch of freshly picked green beans from her garden (I’m sure it was below the acceptable limit on gifts a federal employee can accept). One 50-mile drive from Sharon into New York state into Massachusetts to come back into Connecticut on a long dirt road led to what turned out to be a summer camp area, where no one lived on April 1 (the count’s official date). I met lots of COVID-displaced New Yorkers; one knew he had completed the census online, but wasn’t sure if he had done so for his Manhattan home … or his Palm Beach home … or his Litchfield County home.

Other than that, COVID had little effect on the work. As essential federal workers, we were exempt from quarantine regulations when traveling between states, but I did get tested on my return.

Many, if not most, people greeted me wearing masks. Rules prohibited us from entering homes, so most interviews were conducted on front porches or in front yards, at a safe distance. At one house, a man greeted me with “stay back, I’m positive.” Obviously, I complied. In general, people were aware and cooperative.

Work in Litchfield County was easy enough, and I was home in New Milford every evening.

Then, a little over a week after starting my tour of Northwest Connecticut, the question from my supervisor: Are you willing to travel? Sure, but where? Don’t know, probably the South, Montana or Arizona and you would need to be willing to travel on 24 hours’ notice. Why not? With strong support from an understanding wife, the saga begins.

Sept. 18 comes and so does the 24 hours’ notice. Fly from Bradley International to Little Rock, Arkansas. Rent a car and drive 2½ hours to Crossett, Arkansas, to receive further instructions. Plan to be gone through Sept. 30. No problem.

At the Tru by Hilton in Crossett (the only hotel in that town of 5,000 people), a delightful staff helps about 20 door-knockers from Massachusetts and Connecticut. Crossett, home to a partially closed Georgia-Pacific plant, is surrounded by seemingly endless pine forests. The city has a huge Walmart, and a few non-fast food restaurants, including one where the owner sits with me for dinner so I don’t have to eat my excellent gumbo alone. We discuss the difficulty of running a restaurant during COVID; she says the federal programs helped keep her business open.

From Crossett, we fan out and the adventure starts.

The first days are in Jones, Louisiana, an unincorporated village of about 250 people, a 40-minute drive into farms, cotton fields, rice paddies, hunting camps, one-lane dirt roads and pervasive, penetrating poverty. No restaurants, no gas stations. I leave the hotel with a full gas tank and a day’s worth of food — fruit, protein bar, yogurt and, of course, coffee.

The excruciating poverty also provides some startling contrasts, including the ramshackle mobile home, with a brand-new, huge Infiniti SUV parked outside. Houses so small the refrigerator is outside on the porch. A front step that is an old tire that leads to a sheet of plywood to the front door.

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An Infiniti SUV is parked outside a dilapidated mobile home (note the front steps/porch and repaired siding) off Route 818 in Ruston, Louisiana.

At one house, an older woman mistakes me for her son, coming to put the front door back on her dilapidated house; the doorway is covered by a dirty, ratty blanket. Even after I convince her I am not her son, she still asks if I would come back to fix the door and have dinner with her.

One case down miles on a rough, rutted logging road leads to a Georgia-Pacific recreation camp (shack). Obviously, there is no one there. GPS guides me another couple of miles down the road to where I could get a more-or-less major road to my next case. Unfortunately, the end of the road is blocked by a chain, so it’s backtracking multiple miles on an excuse for a road.

Even the main roads in that area leave much to be desired. What passes for asphalt actually are individual pothole repairs sometimes, but not often, linked with one another. Several roads still are blocked by debris from the previous hurricane and, since we catch the tail end of Hurricane Laura, sometimes flooded.

Here comes the first hitch in census operations. When no one responds to a knock on the door, enumerators leave a Notice of Visit (NOV) with details on how to complete the census by phone or internet. Simple enough. But then the enumerator must try three proxies to obtain information about the unresponsive residence. So, standing at a farmhouse surrounded by cotton fields and no other buildings in sight, how do you find a proxy? Keep trying, we’re told; it doesn’t matter how far away.

At the end of another rutted dirt road, the assigned address is an open field, duly noted in the “case notes.” I am sent back to the same location the next day, and the “case notes” reflect “still an open field, as it was yesterday.”

Speaking of proxies, the first question asked of them is basic: How many people live in your neighbor’s house? Then, it gets a bit ridiculous: Do you know the names of all the people in that house? Their race? Ethnicity? Ages? Birthdays of all the children? You’ve got to be kidding. Fortunately, an acceptable answer is “don’t know.”

From Jones to Bonita, Louisiana, population 335. Even more poverty; a town park that consists of four basketball hoops with one net among them, and one swing. Here the proxies are more helpful. “Oh, yeah, that’s my brother’s house. That one is my cousin’s. And that one is my ex-husband’s.”

This truly is the “Bible Belt,” at least the Protestant Bible Belt. The one Catholic church in Crossett is closed but, at one intersection in Louisiana, there are adjacent signs for three Baptist churches and, a little way down the dirt road, there are three adjacent Baptist churches. I didn’t confirm whether they were in the same sequence as the signs. In Monroe, Louisiana, a Christian church complex puts the “mega” in megachurch. The complex includes several huge buildings and outdoor sports fields.

And the people are as kind and religious as you would expect. One day, I lose count of the number of times I am “blessed.” “Bless you for what you are doing.” “Have a blessed day.”

That has to be contrasted with the residual racism. While most people I meet exhibit no overt bias, the housing definitely is — for the most part — segregated by neighborhood. And in Bonita, a nice, helpful, polite older woman at a fashionable house asks: “Are you counting everyone?” “Yes, ma’am.” “You mean you’re going to the Black houses?”

Then on to Monroe, West Monroe, Rustin, actual cities with apartment/condo complexes, parks and a wide range of housing and facilities, like public park bathrooms. A common theme throughout Louisiana is the white pickup truck. The make is immaterial, but almost all are white.

Throughout Louisiana, piles of Laura debris — trees and house furnishings — are piled at the curbs, waiting to be removed by contractors, and another hurricane is coming.

One of my last Louisiana cases is at Fort Polk, a 3½-hour drive from Crossett. Now that was a day!

Home by Sept. 30? Nope. You’re extended through Oct. 6.

With the imminent arrival of Hurricane Delta, we are alerted to be ready to move to either Pensacola, Florida, or somewhere in Georgia. Evacuation comes on 24 hours’ notice. Check out of the hotel, cancel your return flight, extend the rental car and head to Tifton, Georgia — a 12-hour drive — in one day.

While in Georgia, the fringes of Delta pass through, spawning 11 tornado warnings within hours. The warnings, on NPR, are so frequent they overlap each other. During one of them, I actually hear the warning sirens in the town. I learn later that five tornadoes touched down in the area.

At the SpringHill Suites in Tifton, the gaggle of enumerators grows to about 30, plus others in three other area hotels. Oh, and you’re now extended through Oct. 17.

Southern Georgia is more refined than Louisiana, with a wide range of housing and generally helpful, friendly people. One enumerator, however, is met with a shotgun. Another is met at the door by a woman with a gun who orders him off her property; he complies, but she calls the police. Two junior deputy sheriffs pull him over, arrest him for trespassing, handcuff him and are ready to have his car towed when he suggests they call their boss. The sheriff, apparently in language the clergy do not use, admonishes the deputies that they had arrested a federal agent performing his duties, and suggests they release him.

It is amazing the bureaucracy works as well as it does. Counting some 330 million people is a daunting task. Each residence is assigned a 12-digit alphanumeric code and geolocator. Data is entered on a Census Bureau iPhone 8 through a Field Data Capture app, which sends the information directly to the Census Bureau computer, wherever that is. In addition to being a “no contact” system, it allows supervisors to track hours and mileage. Supervisors always were a phone call away and worked diligently to coordinate all of us in the field. But with so many enumerators descending on short notice to an area, there had to be glitches and waste. Within 24 hours of heading to Georgia, I have five different points of contact before they all get sorted out.

As I leave an apartment complex after interviewing one unit, another enumerator arrives to interview the unit next door to the one I had done. On another occasion, on a short dead-end road with three houses, as I am leaving, another enumerator drives up to interview another house.

All good things must come to an end — again on 24 hours’ notice, in a late-afternoon email on Oct. 12: “Book a flight for tomorrow, check out of your hotel, return your rental car.” Compliments here to the staff at CWTSatoTravel, the organization that handles government travel. Short-staffed because of the Columbus Day holiday, they plow through the hundreds of last-minute changes with charm.

A 2½-hour drive to Atlanta and home via Charlotte, North Carolina, to Westchester and a waiting wife. The only glitch there is that Enterprise Car Rental determines, because it had switched to one-way rental, the “unlimited mileage” provision no longer applied and I am charged 35 cents a mile for the 6,135 miles I had driven — more than $2,145. It takes a few phone calls to straighten that out.

Was it worth it? Absolutely! I’ve had the privilege of having been in all 50 states, but this was a chance for a deep dive into a part of America I had never seen, meeting mostly interesting, friendly and generous people. For someone born and reared in Brooklyn and now living in the “wilds” of Litchfield County, it was an experience.

Would I do it again? Absolutely! Well, by the next census, I’ll be 85, so maybe not.

Many of the door-knockers said they had taken the job for the pay; several had been laid off because of COVID. Some did it for the challenge. My reasons were a little of both, along with a desire to serve, following an Army Reserve career and service on various town commissions.

It was a challenge to work an average of 10 hours a day for 25 straight days, with an average drive of 266 miles a day — all that with a recently replaced hip! Each stop for an interview — as many as 35 a day — was the same: sunglasses off, mask on, badge on, phone in hand; finish interview, mask off, sunglasses on, check GPS for next directions.

Did it work? The Census Bureau reports it has counted 99.8 percent of all the people in the U.S. Critics may challenge that, but I believe we at least came very close. 

I’m just not sure about that person in a dilapidated mobile home in Jones, Louisiana, who never answered the door three days in a row and whose front yard was covered in empty beer cans. Did he ever respond to the three NOVs I had left there?

Gerard J. Monaghan is a recovering journalist, co-founder and former president of the Association of Bridal Consultants, and a retired Army Reserve lieutenant colonel. He holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism (St. Bonaventure University), a master’s in political science (University of Connecticut) and did post-graduate studies in public relations and marketing (University of South Carolina), and serves on the New Milford Planning Commission. His wife, Eileen, and he have four grown children and nine grandchildren.

This article appears in the January 2021 issue of Connecticut MagazineYou can subscribe to Connecticut Magazine here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get our latest and greatest content delivered right to your inbox. Have a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com. And follow us on Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.