Census Bureau Struggles To Add Staff For 2020's Census

Oct 22, 2019
Originally published on October 22, 2019 4:29 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There are less than five months until the 2020 census is fully underway. The Federal Government is ramping up its efforts to hire around half a million workers for the national headcount. But the Census Bureau has been running into trouble with low unemployment and delays in processing background checks. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: One of the keys to getting every person living in the U.S. counted for the census...

(SOUNDBITE OF U.S. CENSUS BUREAU AD)

WANG: ...Is the bevy of census workers who pound the pavement and knock on doors to interview people in households who don't fill out a form by late spring.

(SOUNDBITE OF U.S. CENSUS BUREAU AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hi. I'm a census taker.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Good pay, flexible hours - help shape your community's future.

WANG: The Census Bureau is rolling out ads like this one to try to convince people to become one of the nearly 500,000 enumerators needed. That's because the bureau expects fewer than seven in 10 households to respond to the census themselves next year, and that could hurt the accuracy of census information that guides how hundreds of billions in federal funding is distributed. Census results also determine the number of congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state gets for the next decade.

(SOUNDBITE OF MURMURING CROWD)

ZAKERA AHMED: Hi. How are you? Hi.

WANG: But with fewer people looking for jobs, census outreach workers like Zakera Ahmed in New York City have been focusing on those who are already employed and are looking for a side gig.

AHMED: We are hiring people. We are paying $25 an hour for the enumerators.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: That's pretty good.

WANG: In some parts of the country, the pay for census jobs hasn't been high enough to attract applicants, according to the Government Accountability Office. Plus, some applicants who already applied this year for early rounds of census jobs have been running into delays in getting processed for background checks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALBERT FONTENOT: Yes, we are behind.

WANG: Albert Fontenot, the Census Bureau's top official for the 2020 count, acknowledged the delay during a public meeting in February.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FONTENOT: Our challenge is not getting people to apply, it's just getting them through the system.

WANG: As a result, the bureau right now is more than three months behind in getting some 1,500 outreach workers, known as partnership specialists, fully on board. And that's before it even steps up hiring for those 500,000 enumerators it will need next year.

FONTENOT: We've added staff to the clearance process and we have reviewed our procedures to make it more efficient.

WANG: Tim Olson is in charge of field operations for the 2020 census. You're not expecting the issues that are causing the delays in background clearances right now for partnership specialists - those issues to crop up for the enumerators, the half million workers that you need?

TIMOTHY OLSON: Not at all. Not at all.

WANG: But Arnold Jackson, who was the chief operating officer for the 2010 census, says he's concerned about this year's delays with the partnership specialist program, which was started to make sure all groups are counted.

ARNOLD JACKSON: I think it's a secret weapon, because it's a program that puts individuals who are hired face-to-face with key influence leaders in various communities, many of which are non-majority communities.

WANG: Just like staffing for a political campaign or a military surge, Jackson says getting census workers ready has a lot to do with timing.

JACKSON: They're only in play for a limited amount of time - sometimes six months, sometimes a year. If you miss that window, the cost of recovery goes through the roof.

WANG: It could also have a lasting cost through the census results. Some households may not be included in the count unless they receive a personal visit by a census worker. According to Census Bureau research, those households are likely to be disproportionately from communities of color.

Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.