Mapping a nation one step at a time

Census-takers like Melissa Daugherty, a waitress, fan out to visit 42 million homes.

St. Louis - For Melissa Daugherty, Census 2000 begins in a downstairs room of the Hazelwood Recreation Center in suburban St. Louis. It's her second day of training, and she and nine colleagues are practicing asking questions.

Practicing questions?

"There's a lot of 'sales' involved," explains Forrest Routh, the group's trainer. Unless census-takers show some self-confidence, "people ... aren't going to be responsive."

For all its high-tech gadgetry and statistical sophistication, the United States census comes down to this: people going door to door, asking questions and filling out paper forms.

Over 10 weeks, bureau personnel expect to train more than a half million census-takers in 23,000 classes around the country. The census-takers - or enumerators - will fan out to visit some 42 million homes that haven't sent in their forms.

Only wartime has ever mobilized so many Americans in a single operation. It's a tradition nearly as old as the Republic itself. And it's hard to find a more important undertaking that thousands of ordinary citizens carry out for their government anywhere in the world.

Money and political power flow from the census count. Pillars of US democracy rely on it, such as "one person, one vote" and "no taxation without representation." Local governments, businesses, and nonprofit groups use the numbers to decide where to build roads, place stores, and canvass volunteers.

Weighty stuff, indeed. But out here, where the real counting takes place, the job feels more like summer temporary work than defending the Constitution.

The Census bureau is hiring twice as many temporary workers as it needs because many won't stick with the work through July.

Ms. Daugherty seems the exception to the rule. "I'm going to be working 40 hours a week," says the part-time waitress. "I think it will be a fun job. I'd like to do it full time."

The bureau calls Census 2000 the first fully computerized census in the nation's history. That's something of a stretch. Enumerators still capture their data on paper forms. It's only afterward that the sophisticated computer system kicks into gear, "reading" the handwritten data off more than 100 million forms by July.

The system has already done the initial crunching of questionnaires that residents sent back in the mail and generated a list of nonrespondents. That's how enumerators know which houses they should visit.

The nation has used the door-to-door method since the very first census in 1790. The mail-back forms date only from 1970 - which is when participation started to dip. By 1990, fully one-third of Americans didn't return their forms.

This year, at least, the bureau managed to stop the erosion of participation. Some 65 percent of Americans did mail back their forms - the same percentage as in 1990. "We did better than we planned," says Kenneth Prewitt, the bureau's director.

One reason is a first-ever massive advertising campaign. The bureau has also reached out to neighborhood groups. It tries to get people to canvass their own area as a way of building up trust.

"I'm in my neighborhood where I live, so the only [challenge] I get is that they talk too much," says Laura DeClue, one of Daugherty's census colleagues and a retired registered nurse.

Still, suspicion lingers. Criminals, illegal aliens, and recent immigrants often fear they might be picked up if they answer questions. (They won't be, the bureau promises, because its data remains off-limits to other government agencies.)

Others don't like big government. This year, several congressmen have called the bureau's long form intrusive.

across one woman who refused to give her any information. DeClue plans to visit again. "Maybe she'll come around," she says.

Enumerators will visit the same home up to three times and telephone three times to make contact. If that doesn't work, they seek the information from a neighbor.

Juggling various forms in the front seat of her fianc's van, Daugherty prepares for her first day on the job in suburban Olivette, Mo. She carries her official Census badge, a manila folder of forms, and a map of the neighborhood.

"I'm nervous," she confesses. "I've got so many things in this folder." Since this is her first time out, she decides to visit only people who need to fill out a short Census form, which should take no more than 10 minutes.

With a smile on her face and a few butterflies in her stomach, she takes off for her first interview. She's not gone long. The person wasn't at home. She fills out a form with her name and phone number, urging the person to call her back so she can take the information over the phone.

It's the same story at her second apartment: no one home. But at her third stop, she strikes gold. An older woman answers, invites her in, and goes through the short form with her.

"It was great," Daugherty exults. "If everybody's that nice, this should be a great job!"

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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