County census effort ramping up for spring

ADDISON COUNTY — In both 1990 and 2000, Charlotte resident Sky Thurber knocked on doors, many of them belonging to his neighbors, saying that he was from the government, and he was there to help — by counting.
Thurber worked both times as a U.S. Census Bureau enumerator, or census taker, in 1990 in his home town and surrounding Chittenden and Addison county communities, and in 2000 in what he called “more colorful” territory, Las Vegas.
For the looming 2010 census, Thurber is back in Vermont as a census recruiter. He and fellow recruiter Gina Styles are responsible for southern Chittenden County and all of Addison County.
As well as earning what he calls a decent part-time paycheck, Thurber said he has signed on each time for the same reasons, starting 19 years ago in Charlotte.
“It’s pretty critical that towns get properly counted, and having lived there for a long time, I just thought it might be helpful to lend a hand … to get as accurate a count as you can, because everything sort of springs from it,” he said. “Appropriations from the federal government as well as districting for the legislature and that sort of thing all come from the numbers developed from the national census.”
According to the Census Bureau, as much as $300 billion of local federal aid hinges on the census data, and Thurber said that the 2000 Census resulted in Nevada picking up a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
In 2000, the U.S. Census pegged the nation’s population at about 281,400,000; since then, it has crested 300,000,000. The task of counting all those people, including the homeless and undocumented immigrants, will take time.
Thurber said about 750,000 workers ended up as part of the 2000 census, and the next 22 months — the results must be final by Dec. 31, 2010 — will see another massive effort.
“Here we are in early 2009, and we’re working on it already,” Thurber said. 
Recruiting, as Thurber said it has in past census cycles, is lagging in Addison County. Styles and Thurber still must find many more workers, possibly as many as 100. And Styles said usually only about one of eight successful applicants accepts a job, which can last five to 10 weeks at 20 or 25 hours per week, and pay $13.50 an hour plus mileage.
Her message to local residents seeking part-time work boils down to, “Come on down.” (See sidebar for list of test sites and job requirements.)
“I don’t like to guarantee jobs, but if you’re in Addison County, you’re probably going to get hired,” Styles said.  
Applicants must pass a test and a criminal background check, but according to the Vermont census office 96 percent of applicants pass the 28-question, multiple-choice test in the allotted 30 minutes. Styles said local applicants do especially well.
“In Addison County, I am getting wonderful, wonderful scores,” she said.
The first major phase of the work, scheduled to begin on April 6, is neighborhood canvassing. Census takers will fan out and see what changes have been made on the ground — new homes or apartments, for example — so that Census Bureau mailing lists can be updated. That effort will last a few months, and Thurber said workers would be assigned to familiar areas as much as possible and given handheld computers.
“They like to keep folks in their own communities or maybe in a neighbor town,” he said. “It wouldn’t make much sense for me to start in Brattleboro today. I wouldn’t even know what street I was on.”
With any luck, many of the workers from that phase will return next spring, when the next door-to-door effort begins. Before then, in February, questionnaires will be mailed out to every household in the U.S. asking the number of residents who live there, as well as their names, ages, relationships and ethnicity, and whether they own or rent.
About two-third of households return those questionnaires. Then, from next April through August, census takers must go out and collect the other one-third, mostly from the absent-minded or busy. Thurber said problems are extremely rare.
“Some people say, ‘Oh, shucks, I meant to get that back to you a month ago,’ and they sit right down and do it. Others … want to make kind of sure what’s going on, and ask why does the government need all this information, and what’s the reason behind it,” Thurber said. “The vast majority end up going through it with you and filling it out in a reasonable manner, and you’re on to the next stop.”
Thurber expects more cooperation than ever this year, because a longer, more time-consuming questionnaire that one-sixth of respondents used to receive has been scrapped; instead, a survey of 100,000 homes is now being conducted.
Thurber said many who in the past failed to cooperate with the mailing had been confronted with a “long form” questionnaire many felt was “intrusive.”
“You were lucky if you didn’t get one. I could understand why people felt as they did,” he said. 
Nor does Thurber expect anyone who signs on locally to have an experience like one of his in Las Vegas.
“We were tasked … to go along the Union Pacific Railroad bed. There were people, the homeless, sleeping along the railroad tracks. We were out there at four in the morning waking them up. That wasn’t a very good response,” he said. “That was a pretty interesting story that I’ve never run into on the Rutland railroad tracks in Charlotte.”
Thurber can’t promise that census takers won’t run into dogs or the occasional grouchy respondent, but he has found it a positive experience — after all, he signed on for a third tour of duty.
“It’s much more of a conversational interaction in general than a so-called stranger coming to your house,” he said. “It’s usually a pretty good reception.”

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