NEW YORK – It sounds simple enough. Knock on some doors, ask some questions, get some answers.
But for the more than 600,000 people going door-to-door to reach those who haven't mailed in their census forms, it's not.
When census enumerators set out this Saturday, they could encounter a range of responses at the 48 million addresses they need to check. People who never seem to be home. People who don't speak English. People who say they're too busy. People who swear they mailed in their responses. People who want to know what business is it of the government how many people live in their house, anyway. People who question what will happen to the information that gets collected.
Census workers around the country have spent most the last week getting trained in all the things they need to know to get the job done, from how to deal with people who are reluctant to answer to what to do at homes with guard dogs.
They've been taught the big things: All the information is kept confidential. (That means they can't talk about anything they've seen with anyone, either.) That it's important to answer because census information is needed for many things, such as Congressional representation and federal funding for programs. If someone says they're too busy at that moment, ask for a specific time to come back.
They've also been taught the smaller things: Wear comfortable shoes. Make sure your pencils are nice and sharp to fill out the forms (and yes, they have to be No. 2 pencils). If there's a dog, ask if the householder would mind moving the animal away. Don't ask to enter someone's home. Smile and be confident.
"We did a lot of practice role-playing all week," said Lesley Rubinger, 61, a Manhattanite who will be leading a crew of census workers in her first door-to-door count. "What to do if somebody gets hostile, or they refuse to answer your questions."
The Census Bureau tries to encourage as many people as possible to mail in their responses — this year's response rate was 72 percent, the same as in 2000. That's because door-to-door canvassing is the most expensive part of the count, as well as the most vulnerable to mistakes.
The more than 600,000 workers who will canvas residents around the country earn between $10 and $25 an hour, working until mid-July.
Enumerators have very specific rules about how they're supposed to work, to ensure consistency, said Tim Olson, assistant division chief in the Census Bureau's Field Division.
That means the same rules for everyone, from the number of contact attempts per address (up to six) to how to properly canvas a block (start at one place, then move clockwise.)
Olson said for the most part, census workers don't meet with extremely negative responses to their visits.
"What our enumerators will encounter, by and large, are households that simply have forgotten or misplaced their forms or just were too busy," he said.
"People want to part be of the census," he said.
Of course, there are some differences in what gets emphasized in training sessions around the country. At a New York City training, it didn't make sense to discuss the section on evaluating mobile homes and trailer parks in depth, Rubinger said.
"The manual is very much written for the whole country," she said. "So they talk about mobile homes and RVs and knocking on doors. Our big problem is doormen and brownstones, so it's a whole other little piece.
"That's what we've been emphasizing all week, what to do when someone says 'No, you can't come in this building.'"
The door-to-door count has its challenges — in some immigrant communities, limited English proficiency could hamper responses and in some rural communities, people are spread out and hard to reach.
The stakes are high. The results of the decennial census are used to apportion seats in the House of Representatives. Census officials this week said New York, California, Texas, Arizona and Florida were in danger of losing Congressional seats because of poor participation.
Observers said the Census Bureau had made strides in getting ready for this year's count, and that includes efforts for the door-to-door canvassing.
The agency has reached out to community groups, to help spread the message that people should fill out their questionnaires and shouldn't be wary of census workers knocking on their doors, as well as to help recruit people who speak other languages for those householders who don't speak English.
Some immigrant advocates still expressed their concerns about whether the census would be able to effectively deal with language barriers.
Seema Agnani, executive director of Chhaya Community Development Corporation, said her group had gone out to some Queens neighborhoods to talk to people about the census and had dealt firsthand with the language challenges some enumerators will face.
Even though her members speak a number of languages, it still wasn't enough to talk to all the people they met.
"I can't imagine that the census enumerators will have more languages available than we do," she said.
But still, she praised the agency for the steps it has taken since last decade.
"It's so much better than it was 10 years ago," she said.
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