Heat, fear and stubborn doormen: What census workers face in the final month of NYC count
Enumerators hired by the U.S. Census Bureau have until Sept. 30 to avoid an undercount. But pandemic-scarred New Yorkers are less likely than ever to welcome in strangers.
September 3, 2020 Rachel Holliday Smith, THE CITY
Getting the word out about the census in Corona, Queens, Aug. 26, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
This story was originally published on June 25 by THE CITY. Sign up here to get the latest stories from THE CITY delivered to you each morning.
The first responders to the non-responders have only a month left.
After a historically fraught census season marked by budget woes, political tussling over a citizenship question, a last-minute timeline cut and a pandemic, New York’s best hope to avoid a U.S. Census undercount is walking around your neighborhood right now.
Census enumerators are pounding the pavement across the five boroughs in an effort to confirm how many people live in the city — at a time when pandemic-scarred New Yorkers may be less likely than ever to answer a door-knock.
The enumerators have until Sept. 30 — a month earlier than originally expected — to get it all done.
Derek, an enumerator on the Upper West Side, applied for the job before the COVID-19 crisis hit. By the summer, he wasn’t sure he could go through with it.
“I did tell myself that I was going to try it for a week and see exactly how it worked out,” he said. “And if I genuinely did not feel safe, I would have most likely have just quit.”
Now, he says he’s committed to the job “until this thing is over.” He is one of a handful of city enumerators who spoke with THE CITY on the condition of anonymity: U.S. Census Bureau employees are not cleared to speak with the media.
Local Count Lags
They have their work cut out for them. In New York, the city’s self-response rate rose 10.7 percentage points between May and August according to a recent analysis.
But that still means only 57.4 percent of households have responded as of Aug. 28 — 6.6 percentage points lower than in 2010. And some hard-to-count neighborhoods are lagging by double digits.
The stakes of getting an accurate count are high for the city. Everything from Congressional seats to federal funding depends on the final numbers.
Andrea, an enumerator in Brooklyn, said she never “expected to be so personally invested in getting it done.”
At first, she took the job mostly because it paid well — at just under 30 bucks an hour — and allowed for a flexible schedule. Now, she finds herself educating, cajoling and sometimes nearly begging for basic information when faced with a reluctant subject.
“It’s really like, ‘You can turn me away, you can slam the door on me, but just tell me how many people live here,’” she said, describing her approach. “If you can just give me that, someone probably won’t bother you again.”