New Milford resident shares his experience as a Census enumerator

It was an intriguing offer.

Flexible hours. Work from home. Decent pay; mileage. Meet interesting people.

Sure, I’m retired and can be a Census Bureau “enumerator” or “door knocker.” Fill out a simple, on-line application. Denied because I was an elected town official. 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 United States. The count determines how many seats each state has in the House of Representatives, as well as how federal aid to states is apportioned.

From 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 every one.

This year, the 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 work force. 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 on line. And then on the road in Litchfield County.

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). Lots of COVID-displaced New Yorkers; one knew he had completed the census on line, but wasn’t sure if he had done for his Manhattan home, or his Palm Beach home, or his Connecticut home.

That was easy enough, and home every evening.

Then the question from my supervisor: “Are you willing to travel?” Sure, but where? Don’t know, probably the South, Montana or Arizona and be willing to travel on 24-hours’ notice. Why not? With strong support from an understanding wife, the saga began.

On the road — again

Then came Sept. 18 and 24-hours notice. Fly from Bradley International to Little Rock, Ark., rent a car and drive 2½ hours to Crossett, Ark., where you will get 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 helped 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 sat with me for dinner so I wouldn’t have to eat my excellent gumbo alone.

From there, we fanned out and the adventure began.

The first days were in Jones, La., 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 left the hotel with a full gas tank and a day’s worth of food - fruit, power bar, yogurt and, of course, coffee.

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

At one house, an older woman thought I was her son, coming to put the front door back on her dilapidated house; the doorway was covered by a dirty, ratty blanket. Even after I convinced her I was not her son, she still asked if I would come back to fix the door and have dinner with her.

One case down miles on a rough, rutted logging road led to a Georgia Pacific recreation camp (shack). Obviously, there was no one there. GPS guided me another couple of miles down that road to where I could get a more-or-less major road to my next case. Unfortunately, the end of the road was blocked by a chain, so it was 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 were blocked by debris from the previous hurricane and, since we caught the tail end of Hurricane Laura, sometimes flooded.

Here came 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 was an open field, duly noted in the “case notes.” Sent back to the same location the next day, the “case notes” reflected “still an open field, as it was yesterday.”

Speaking of proxies, the first question asked of them was basic: How many people live in your neighbor’s house? Then, it got 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 was “don’t know.”

From Jones to Bonita, La., population 335. Even more poverty; a town park that consisted of four basketball hoops with one net among them, and one swing. Here the proxies were 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 was closed but, at one intersection in Louisiana, there were adjacent signs for three Baptist churches and, a little way down the dirt road, there were three adjacent Baptist churches.

I didn’t confirm whether they were in the same sequence as the signs. In Monroe, La., a Christian church complex puts the “Mega” in Mega Church. The complex includes several huge buildings and outdoor sports fields.

And the people were as kind and religious as you would expect. On one particular day, I lost count of the number of times I had been “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 met, at least on the surface, exhibited no overt bias, the housing definitely was — for the most part — segregated by neighborhood. And, in Bonita, a nice, helpful, polite older woman at a fashionable house asked: “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 was the white pickup truck. The make was immaterial, but almost all were white.

Throughout Louisiana, piles of Tropical Storm Laura debris - trees and house furnishings - were piled at the curbs, waiting for contractors to remove it, and another hurricane was coming.

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

Still more work to be done

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

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

While in Georgia, the remnants of Delta passed through, spawning 11 tornado warnings within hours. The warnings, on NPR, were so frequent they overlapped each other. For one of them, we actually heard the warning sirens in the town. Learned later that five tornadoes actually had touched down in the area.

At the SpringHill Suites in Tifton, the gaggle of enumerators grew 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, was met with a shotgun. Another was met at the door by a woman with a gun who ordered him off her property; he complied, but she called the police. Two junior deputy sheriffs pulled him over, arrested him for trespassing, handcuffed him and were ready to have his car towed when he suggested they call their boss. The sheriff, apparently in language the clergy do not use, admonished the deputies that they had arrested a federal agent performing his duties - and suggested 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 alpha/numeric code and geolocator. Data was entered on a Census iPhone 8 through a Field Data Capture app, which sent the information directly to the Census Bureau computer, wherever that is.

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 had five different contact points before they all got sorted out.

As I left an apartment complex after interviewing one unit, another enumerator arrived 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 was leaving, another enumerator drove 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 CWTSATO, the organization that handles government travel. Short-staffed because it was a holiday, they plowed through the hundreds of last-minute changes with charm.

No problem; 2½-hour drive to Atlanta and home via Charlotte, N.C., to Westchester and a waiting wife. The only glitch there was that Enterprise Car Rental determined, because it had become a one-way rental, the “unlimited mileage” provision no longer applied and charged 35 cents a mile for the 6,135 miles I had driven — more than $2,145. It took a few phone calls to straighten that out.

Would I do it again?

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.

A challenge of working 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 America. 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, who never answered the door and whose front yard was covered in empty beer cans. Did he ever respond to the NOV?

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, a Master’s degree in political science and post-graduate studies in public relations and marketing. He serves on the New Milford Planning Commission. He and his wife, Eileen, have four grown children and nine grandchildren.