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How the Census Worked As Stimulus

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2010/09/Census-worker.jpgA Census worker in Minneapolis. (Flickr/Adria.Richards)

The enumerators — the door-to-door Census takers — have long since finished. The final quality assurance representatives, technology specialists, accountants and phone operators are packing up. Contracts are expiring for workers on retainer. Thus, with a whisper, the decennial United States Census is ending.

[Economy1] Washington completes this Constitutionally required count of each man, woman and child in the country every ten years, so that Washington knows how to apportion Congressional seats and trillions of dollars in federal funds. That also means Washington engages in a direct-employment program every ten years. In 2010, it could not have come at a better time — in the midst of the jobless “recovery” following the worst recession since the Great Depression. With six workers competing for every opening and Congress waffling on providing additional aid to the jobless, the Census came barrelling in — a coincidental, accidental stimulus, stuffing billions of dollars into hundreds of thousands of empty pockets for dull, easy work.

At times, the Census seemed to be the only bright spot in a grim economy. In May, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the economy added a shocking 431,000 jobs — but 411,000 came from the Census. Without it, the economy seemed to sputter. In July, with Census workers packing up, the Labor Department noted that the economy lost 54,000 jobs, with private employers failing to make up the 114,000 positions that evaporated with the Census.

It did not act as a panacea. And it might be an inefficient, anarchic undertaking. But at this time, the Census came as a welcome one.

Before he started working on the Census, Brad Nelson did electrical work and retail management in Fresno, a city of 500,000 surrounded by industrial farms, right smack in the middle of California. Craig Baltz, now a friend of Nelson’s, had been working for a marine-salvage company out on an island in Alaska before returning to the city to be closer to his family.

But Fresno was in tough straits. The state of California has a high unemployment rate — at 12.4 percent, third only to Michigan and Nevada. And Fresno’s unemployment rate is high even for California. At one point, it drifted above 17 percent. Employment-wise, out of 372 metro regions surveyed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Fresno ranks 365th.

So, in the winter of 2008, Baltz and Nelson decided to apply for Census jobs. “An ex-boss of mine heard about it and was going down to take the test, so I went down with her,” Nelson explains. “I basically stumbled into it, as did most of the people I worked with.” Baltz, similarly, saw an ad in the paper and applied on a whim. The government hired the two men, who helped open an early Census office about 17 months before the big summer 2010 ramp-up.

At first, just 10 or 20 staffers worked for the Census in Fresno, setting up the phones and helping to hire and train others. “The office was a dump!” Nelson reports. “We had constant water leaks and alarm issues. And, we were right in the area where there was an ongoing gang war. We had to get armed security outside our building.”

But it was work — albeit temporary work. “For instance, there was address canvassing,” Baltz says, “where we’d have to hire a lot of people to go check addresses, then more to check their work in the office. That meant we would hire 20 or 30 clerks in the office, and hundreds in the field. Then we’d fire all of them. Then, a few months later, we’d have another project, and the big roller coaster ride would come again, up and down, up and down. Very few people stayed through the whole time, though we did layoff and rehire the same people over and over.”

Most of the workers Baltz and Nelson encountered had no other jobs. “I’d say very few, a very small percentage, had other jobs,” Baltz says. “People would come for the paycheck. Because of the economy here in Fresno, we had just so many people who were available to work.”

And many were frankly destitute. “Because of the way the Census hired,” Baltz says, “we didn’t even meet or interview people before we hired them. We hired them solely off of their test scores. So, some people would get a perfect score on the test, they’d come in, and they wouldn’t even be able to tie their shoes.” Others were so down on their luck they came in without clean clothes. Some evidently had mental-health problems. One loudly announced he had his gun in his car downstairs, just in case.

But over the course of the Census-taking, the office swelled from a few dozen workers to more than 4,000 — meaning the Census hired the equivalent of one out of every eight unemployed workers in Fresno.

Across the country, offices like the one in Fresno started popping up. The scale of the Census-taking boggles the mind, the method almost silly in its labor-intensiveness. The Census hires workers to visit, in person, every single home, prison, mental institution, ranch, halfway house, marina, homeless shelter and other domicile in the United States. (Consider: The United States is the third-largest country on Earth. And it is just the 32nd most densely inhabited.) Workers update each address, and then the Census sends a form to each one. If a household does not respond, a Census-taker — known as an enumerator, for the Constitutional language — visits up to three times to help.

This is far from the most efficient way to tally U.S. residents. Social scientists and small-government supporters argue that an extensive telephone survey supplanted with some physical counts would do the same job, perhaps more accurately, at a fraction of the cost. And many cost-saving technological advances have failed. In 2000, the Census let respondents answer over the Internet. In 2010, they did not.

So, the Census continues to rely on feet on the ground and knocks on front doors. Counting America this go around required the temporary help of more than 800,000 workers. About 635,000 enumerators visited homes that did not mail in a Census form. A further 59,000 counted people without conventional housing, and 29,000 went to tally up people in prisons, schools and other group quarters. In total, the Census Bureau’s force of enumerators was seven times the number of troops sent for the Afghanistan surge — or the equivalent of the total number of U.S. postal carriers. About 4 million Americans, 3 percent of the total workforce, applied for the jobs.

Beyond the army of enumerators, it also hired a support staff of hundreds of thousands. There were trainers to train the trainers to train the trainers. There were phone operators, technicians, human-resources workers and computer specialists. There were thousands of middle-managers. There was a small army of staffers to deal with complaints from people having their Census data checked.

Paying this staff proved the single biggest cost for the Census, which clocked in millions of hours of work at $10 and $25 an hour. Additionally, of course, the Census made business for businesses. It rented millions of square feet of office space. It bought tens of thousands of pencils. It spent $2.5 million on a Superbowl advertisement.

All that spending meant that the Census has a noticeable and measurable impact on the economy. Measured quarterly, the Census boosted annualized real and nominal gross-domestic product by 0.1 percent in the first quarter of 2010 and 0.2 percent in the second. It reduced GDP growth by similar amounts in the third quarter, even though, last month, Census still flushed $250 million of new government spending into the economy. And it knocked a few tenths of a percentage point off of the April and May unemployment rates, essentially preventing those rates from drifting higher.

The Census actually came in under budget, by about $1.6 billion. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke noted that part of the reason the Census went so smoothly was because of the higher-quality workforce it attracted: Due to the massive number of unemployed persons, the Census attracted more-qualified applicants for jobs. “That highly skilled workforce came up with efficiencies on their own and ideas that were then incorporated community-wide and then system-wide,” Locke said. He noted that a number of Census employees had canvassed for Obama.

But the Census remains a sprawling, continent-wide endeavor, and sprawling, continent-wide endeavors mean waste. Stephen Robert Morse built the site MyTwoCensus.com, dedicated to tallying the Census’s monumental inefficiencies. He tracked workers caught throwing out Census sheets, or faking information, or gambling on the job. He watched for senseless spending, and found it everywhere.

“This Census shouldn’t have been done by hand to begin with,” he says. Two years ago, the Census Bureau decided to connect Census employees to an integrated system via hand-held computers, like iPhones. The endeavor, despite the upfront costs, should have reduced the Census workforce by tens of thousands and saved the Census $3 billion. To make the computers, the Census Bureau awarded a $700 million contract to the Harris Corporation. But the system proved, ultimately, unusable.

“So far, it is not as stable as it needs to be,” said the Government Accountability Office’s Robert Goldenkoff. Instead of getting instructions via handheld, enumerators in 2010 got printouts.

“Brazil, in their census, is using proprietary handheld devices better than we are,” Morse sighs. “In the Amazon rainforest.”

The Census also overhires employees, an audit found. For instance, the Census Bureau hired 10,200 temporary employees to do nothing but attend training, and 5,028 temporary employees to attend training and work for less than a day.

Baltz and Nelson, of the Fresno office, saw it firsthand. “It was the last week of working on the address portion of the Census,” Nelson recalls. “We already had workers out in the field who had completed their area, checking addresses in rural parts of Fresno and in the city. We would let people go once they finished their area, and we told the office higher-ups that we had enough workers to get things done ahead of schedule.

“But the office told me that we had to keep on training workers — even though we knew there was no way we would need them. I asked why we had to do that. The story I was told was because — it was right around the time, just before or just after the elections, where they had just signed the stimulus, it needed to go to create jobs.”

Baltz seconded the story. “We paid $18 bucks an hour, for a 40-hour week, to the trainer. Then all the people in the class were making $16 bucks an hour for a 40-week. That’s $640 a week per person. That’s like $6,000 that we just wasted.”

“‘We’re creating jobs,’ one of the higher-ups told me,” Nelson said. “We thought it was a joke.”

But though it created jobs for hundreds of thousands of workers, the Census hiring program was not designed to best-aid the jobless, and its effect on the economy is actually more moderate than the gross numbers would make it seem. Many Census workers came not from the rolls of the unemployed, but out of retirement. Most were working only part-time, going to school or working other jobs during the day. For that reason, the Census brought down the unemployment rate less than one would expect.

The Commerce Department’s chief economist, Mark Doms, explains: “Given that a lot of these Census workers didn’t work that many hours — it ended up being not a tremendous amount of money relative to the total economy. The GDP impact was not large. Even if we use the multiplier analysis [to see the impact of the infusion of dollars into the economy], you’re still not going to get a very large number,” he says. Moreover, the shot in the arm proved short-lived — helping many in April and May, but fading through the summer.

But even if the impact is hard to measure, for some workers, it was all too clear. Nelson, for one, is now just unemployed.

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