A small fire could be seen burning in the distance of an abandoned railroad property in the backwoods of Beaver County. It was the only thing glowing in the darkness as a dozen U.S. Census workers trekked down a long and winding gravel road that led to the makeshift campsite.
We were unsure about what we would find in the midnight hours of March 31 while searching for homeless people to count in the 2010 Census. But the glow of that fire brightened the closer we inched toward the area. When we arrived at the fire, there was no one there; just a red van and indications that someone in another vehicle hurriedly left minutes before.
We had been fooled.
Instead of counting someone that society had forgotten about, we likely were stalking a couple of teenagers drinking beer. Wearing reflective vests and holding flashlights and clipboards, we spent the night searching local parks, underneath bridges and in densely wooded areas. Yet we found no one.
That was just one of the many jobs I carried out while working as a census enumerator for six months last year. It only happens every 10 years, but the census is vital in determining everything from the number of elected representatives we have to how much federal or state money each community receives. It’s a job I took very seriously.
I participated in three phases of the 2010 Census that ranged from counting people at soup kitchens and nursing homes to making sure enumerators didn’t fabricate their data. The Non-Respondent Follow-up Reinterview phase, or NRFU-RI for short, was the most difficult time on the job. We followed up the original enumerators to ask a few more questions for quality control purposes.
If you didn’t like the first census taker knocking on your door, then you REALLY didn’t like me!
Still, it was a wonderful – albeit unusual – experience after being furloughed in the midst of the savage recession that left so many people unemployed. My coworkers came from various backgrounds, ages and professions (or lack thereof). Most of them were retirees, although a few of us were without a job and desperately looking for supplemental income and the much-needed feeling of being productive.
So when people study the state’s population figures released by the Census Bureau this week, it isn't just about mind-boggling statistics. And for me, the 2010 Census was about more than just mailing back a government form.