State Watch

Census Bureau faces hiring woes amid low unemployment

The U.S. Census Bureau is sounding alarms about its ability to hire the hundreds of thousands of temporary employees to conduct its decennial count in a job market that is near full employment.

In a blog post Tuesday, a senior official in the bureau’s communications office suggested the strong economy and the low unemployment rate will make it difficult for the agency to hire enough people to count those who live in households that do not respond to mailed Census forms.

“For the decennial census, the Census Bureau will need a large and diverse workforce to follow up by phone or in person with households that do not respond to the questionnaire,” Robert Bernstein wrote. “But, the lower the unemployment rate, the harder it can be to recruit.”

{mosads}The national unemployment rate stands at just 4 percent. In many states, the unemployment rate is at or below 3 percent, meaning there are few unattached workers who might apply for the temporary positions the Census Bureau hires for every 10 years.

The situation is much different than it was a decade ago, when the nation was in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression. Back then, as the unemployment rate touched 10 percent, 3.9 million out-of-work Americans applied to work for the Bureau.

In 2010, the Bureau hired an estimated 635,000 people to serve as enumerators, the position’s official title.

Phil Sparks, a former associate director of communications at the Census Bureau and the co-director of The Census Project, which keeps tabs on the bureau and its funding, said the lack of available workers will force the agency to offer higher wages, raising the overall cost of an already-mammoth undertaking to count all 330 million or so Americans.

“With an unemployment rate [considerably] above the current rate [in 2010] the Census Bureau was able to find hundreds of thousands of census-takers at reasonable rates,” Sparks said in an email. “The quality of those seeking temporary census [positions] was also high because of the higher unemployment rates.”

Bernstein said the Bureau is already working on solutions necessary to find more eligible workers. The Bureau has cut the time it will take to apply for a job from an average of two hours to less than 30 minutes. They will pay for job advertisements in local newspapers and in media outlets aimed at ethnic minorities, in order to find enumerators who look like the communities in which they serve, as well as on social media.

Two years before Americans get their Census questionnaires in the mail, the bureau is scrambling to make preparations for its count. Census watchers have warned that Congress has not allocated enough money to make adequate preparations, and several field tests have been scrapped for lack of funding.

The bureau is also dealing with a proposal from the Trump administration and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross — himself a former enumerator — to add a question about whether a respondent is actually a citizen. Experts worry that question would dissuade a number of illegal immigrants from participating in the Census, potentially undermining the accuracy of the count and therefore the hundreds of funding decisions that allocate money to state, county and local governments.

“Controversy about the content of the census does complicate our messaging,” Census Bureau acting director Ron Jarmin told NPR in an interview this week. Jarmin said lawsuits filed by state and local governments seeking to force the Bureau to drop the question has raised “uncertainty” about the final product.

The 2020 Census will be the 24th taken in American history.

The first Census, conducted in 1790, counted 3.9 million Americans, including 33,131 in America’s largest city, New York. That Census, directed by Thomas Jefferson, asked just six questions and employed 650 enumerators at a cost of $44,000.

In 2010, most Americans got a 10-question short-form survey. That year’s count, which cost $12.9 billion, found 308,745,538 people living within the United States.

The Census Bureau estimates the U.S. population currently stands north of 328 million people. The country adds an additional person, either through birth or migration, on an average of every 12 seconds.

Tags 2020 Census Census Bureau Citizenship Wilbur Ross
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