US Census: What a Difference a Year Makes

In honor of Census Day (*pauses to let people mark their calendars*), I thought I’d revisit learning from the Census, as I was doing last year, with a look at the people in the field now.

Back when I started my Census work, the workforce was made up of listers. Now, as one of my friends joins the team, the Census itself is in full swing and it’s all the enumerators. Looking at the differences between the two makes me think about the effects of slightly altered priorities on a group of people. (That, and describing groups of people as if writing for a nature magazine is a fun voice exercise; try it sometime!)

See, there’s a lot of difference between a lister and an enumerator. The enumerator, of course, is there to get answers, to make sure that the number of people in the house, dorm room, cell block, boat, cave, improvised tent, whatever is properly recorded. The lister, on the other hand, just needs to give update the mailing list (hence the name), and in fact would prefer not to talk to people. They’re working for the same people. They’re doing similar things. How do they come out different?

The lister is a peculiar, elusive creature. Her job is to stand on the doorstep and acquire a GPS location for every building, so the address list is accurate when it’s time for the forms to be filled out. Since social contact is unnecessary, it follows that she is a diurnal creature, working around when normal work hours would be; this both allows her to keep to her normal sleep schedule and helps her to avoid human contact. After all, human contact makes life difficult for the lister; when she speaks to people, which is usually to explain why she’s walking around the neighborhood standing on people’s doorsteps and toying with peculiar technology, she is obliged to provide a form that assures that all answers will be confidential for the next seventy-and-change years, despite the fact that she is not actually answering any questions. Most listers prefer to avoid this, and have mastered a technique known as the ‘ninja knock’, a low-volume meeting of hand and door meant to assure the people who did see her that she’s legit and to avoid the attention of the ones who didn’t see her anyway and thus do not need such reassurances. Her appearance favors the practical, but she will often adjust it to fit in with her surrounding environment, or ‘assignment area’.

The enumerator, on the other hand, is much more social. She is a crepuscular creature, operating in the early mornings and the evenings so as to maximize the chance of locating her quarry. As her job is to gather information from people rather than points of geography, her pad of confidentiality forms is anything but vestigial; she will ask questions, so there will be answers to remain secret. While she and the lister are usually both professionally groomed, she pays more attention to her camouflage, ensuring that she looks like the kind of person to whom her quarry can give information. While the lister flits from place to place, staying only for a moment, the enumerator visits fewer places for longer; she only needs to concern herself with people who haven’t sent in their forms, but such visits take longer than a mere map spot in front of the door.

There are still similarities. Both species of Fed sport confidentiality form pads, badges, navy blue and white bags with the distinctive patterns of the Census employee, and some form of information storage. Both are generally solitary, mobile creatures, wandering their patterns alone and favoring speed over leisure. Still, what a difference a year makes!

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