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Enumerators at Work

Mon Jun 28 2010
Robert Groves
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During the past few weeks I’ve accompanied enumerators as they did their field work. In one episode we were attacked by a Midwestern thunderstorm and didn’t actually get to work, while tree limbs were falling around us and debris was flying through the air. The other experiences were disproportionately visits to multi-unit structures. Some were easy; some were difficult.

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The basics of the job are very similar to those of other face-to-face survey interviewing – attempting to gain access to the units, knocking on doors, explaining your affiliation and reason for the visit, seeking the residents’ permission to ask the questions, and administering the interview.

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What makes the 2010 Census field operation different, however, is that the awareness of the 2010 Census is higher than what is typical for sample surveys. Further, many households remember receiving the paper questionnaire (indeed, many note that they had mailed back the form).

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Going out with the enumerators reminded me of the anxieties of the job. Approaching each house is a new experience. It isn’t at all clear what the next few minutes will bring. Will someone be at home? Will they try to avoid answering the knock on the door? If they answer, will they be friendly, hostile, or frightened? Are there dogs? Do they speak languages I can speak?

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After knocking on hundreds of doors, the anxieties tend to decrease, but a heightened sense of awareness is ever-present at the moment the door opens. The task is a simple and good one – merely making sure everyone is counted in the country’s census. But the lives of many residents are far removed from the logic that drives our enumerators to work so hard for a complete count. Day to day struggles may make our request seem quite strange and irrelevant to their lives. Good enumerators try to link the life concerns of the residents to the benefits of the census, but often they have only seconds to do so before the door closes.

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Census enumeration is tough work, much more difficult than my job. Those hundreds of thousands of census workers who have provided the country this service deserve our thanks.

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