The Census 2000 Money Hole

Virginia Meredith

As an artist,
various and sometimes strange jobs come my way. When talk of the Census went
around, with its intoxicating mythical promise of $18 an hour, I was intrigued
enough to find the phone number and make the call. Thus began my journey into
the lucrative labyrinth of not working for the U.S. government.

I say not
working for the U.S. government because, while I eventually received almost
$1,000 dollars from the Census Bureau, I only worked about 20 hours and
counted about 20 people.

The American
government, in its infinite wisdom, paid and overpaid for everything I did
except for the initial testing. I can’t remember much about the test except
that it was much more difficult than I expected. After all, I thought I was
applying for a job counting people not quarks. Nevertheless, at the end of the
testing session, the tester informed me that they would call when there was
work and gave me a phone number I could call in a few weeks to find out about
my test score, which I did. Anything above 77 was passing. I got an 88. So I
was happy, waiting for them to call, imagining myself counting people like so
many eggs for $18, make that $15 (they lied), an hour.

One day the
phone rang and a cheerful voice asked if I could go to a two-day Enumerator
(censusese for people counter) Training session at such and such a date and
time. First question, “Do we get paid for the training?” “Oh yes, $15 an hour,
8 hours each day.” “Count me in.”

True to form,
the training session at the local Police Headquarters started late because the
forms hadn’t arrived yet. Our jovial teacher tried to keep us amused with
personal anecdotes for half an hour. Looking back I know why he was so happy;
he had already found out what the rest of us were shortly to discover and that
is that in the Census 2000 you “work” five hours and get paid for eight. After
the forms finally arrived, we spent the next hour filling them out. There were
about 15 of them. It was amazing, not only in sheer quantity, but also how
difficult it was for the 40 or so people in attendance.

One financial
form was about method of payment, either check through the mail or direct
deposit. The teacher and his assistant very convincingly urged us toward the
direct deposit method with many horror stories of people waiting months for
checks that never came. So I filled out the direct deposit form and turned it
in. Finally we got to the actual training and it was time for lunch—one hour.
Some bright lad asked, “Do we get paid for lunch?” “Oh no,” the teacher
replied wryly, yet at the end of the day we did get paid eight hours for being
there from 9:00-12:00 and 1:00-3:00. The key to this wonderful overpayment was
how you fill out the daily time sheet: We were instructed at the end of the
day to put down 8:30-12:30 and 1:00-5:00. Officially.

After lunch we
got down to the brass tacks of counting people and filling out Census
Questionnaires. This process involved excruciating repetition. All in all we
were only at it a couple of hours when we were told it was time to go home at
three o’clock. But, as I mentioned earlier, we would get paid as if we had
worked till five o’clock. Jubilation all around.

First thing
next morning we were told we needed to have a representative from our bank
sign the direct deposit forms we turned in the previous day. As we waited for
him to hand them back to us we were told he didn’t have them. “OK…how do we
get them back?” “When you are called for work your crew leader should have
them or you can fill out a new form,” he stated. “Can we have a new form now?”
“No, I don’t have any more.” This apparently was my initiation into the
secrets of government strategy.

Needless to
say, I was not called for work and did not receive payment. Numerous calls to
the local Census Headquarters got nowhere. One girl told me to go to my bank
and get a direct deposit form from them, which I tried to do, but my bank told
me my employer had to supply the form. Exasperated, I exclaimed it was for the
government, the U.S. Census, I had to have it. Therefore, she hand wrote a
note of some sort with my banking information on it. It didn’t work. But
finally after a month of calling, the money appeared in my checking account.
One deposit of $111.21 one week and another $111.21 the next. Why two checks?
Billing is always Sunday through Saturday and my training was Saturday and

But still no
work for me. At one time during this three month period one helpful woman at
the local Census Department said to me over the phone, “Oh, hey, everyone’s
going to be here from 3:00 to 4:00 today for a big meeting. I bet if you come
right over before the meeting you could find someone to give you work.” I
asked, “Who is everyone?” “All the big wigs,” she replied, “the crew leaders
and stuff.” That sounded too much like begging or something. It was creepy and
strange. I didn’t want to do that and besides, it was pretty far away. It
would take too long and I might not make it on time anyway. That was the only
“job” offer I received until after the Census was over.

Around mid-June
a message on my phone machine asked if I wanted to work for the U.S. Census
2000. It had to be a joke; they had already announced the results on
television. I didn’t call back. A week later there was another call and it
turned out they did want me. Not for work, but for another training.
Unbelievable. I told her I already had the Enumerator Training; I just never
got a call to actually work. “This is a different training,” she explained,
“although I think you would be doing something similar. It is a follow-up
census.” From previous experience I knew it was pointless to press for further
information. She stated that it was a three-day training at $15 an hour, 8
hours a day. If history repeated itself, I would take home a cool $333 for
sitting somewhere for approximately 15 hours. No need to worry about payment I
was thinking, I’m already in the system. I said, “Count me in again.”

About 12 people
were gathered at the appointed place and time when I arrived. The trainer was
there too, but guess what? We had to wait because the forms hadn’t arrived
yet. So the trainer amused us with personal anecdotes for half an hour. Maybe
that is part of their job description, “must be able to amuse people for a
half an hour while waiting for forms to arrive.” Along with her monologue, we
learned we were going to be taught basically the same things we were taught
before (there was only one person who hadn’t already gone through a training).
When the forms finally arrived, they were identical to everything we had been
given the first time, including all the financial employment forms. “Do we
really have to fill these forms out again?” I implored, “I’m already in the
direct deposit system.” “Yes,” she stated calmly, “this is a different
program. You must fill out all the forms again. I strongly suggest you use the
direct deposit method of payment.” There was no use protesting. At least this
time she told us right away to have the form signed by a bank employee. So if
the day proceeded as before, we’d be out by 3:00 and I could go to my bank.
Which was just how it happened.

Weeks went by
again and no one called, but at least this time I got paid when they said I
would. So I was thinking, if they never call it would just make perfect sense,
I will have received a total of $555 for learning something that I will never
use and which could have been taught in one day for $111. That’s a 400 percent
markup. Probably dead-on by government standards.  Finally I did get a call to
work—on July 4. Somehow that seemed so fitting. They told me to report to my
local Census Department at 10:00 AM. I tried to tell her that at the training
we were told to report to a crew leader and would not be going to the
Department. She calmly stated, “Welcome to the Census, that has all been
changed. You need to come here every day to pick up and drop off your work.” I
exclaimed, “You mean that office way out west?” “Oh yes, that office
everyday.” I thought I might as well go; by the time I got there tomorrow the
whole thing would probably be closed anyway.

It was with
serious doubt that I went the next morning, but to my surprise there were
people there and they knew what I was talking about. I sat down at a table
across from a smiling young man who rather nonchalantly asked me how many
forms I would like. I explained that this was my first time so he gave me nine
official Census questionnaires to be followed up and completed. Real work. All
the addresses on my questionnaires were in a three block radius of Wrigley
Field. Around six that evening, with my official U.S. Census 2000 bag, over my
shoulder I was ready to make my first house call.

It was with
some fear that I rang that first doorbell, but mostly what I felt was amazed
amusement. After all that time, I was actually about to start counting people.
There was no answer. Just as well, I left a notice that I had been there and
would return. Without going into detail, by the end of about an hour and a
half I had tried to contact all nine residences and had actually completed
four forms. But the dark underbelly of the follow-up Census 2000 had revealed
its threatening form to me: All my respondents said they had already filled
out and returned their Census forms and were fairly upset to be bothered
again. As the next few days went by I bothered a number of people who said
they had actually been visited by two, and in some cases three other Census

What was more
interesting was the ingenious way I was instructed to fill out the daily
payment form. When I returned to the department the morning after my first
day, a cheerful worker asked if I had included travel time on my payment form.
“Yes” I replied, “half an hour for going to the location as I was told I could
do.” He happily informed me I could count one half hour each way and also one
hour for my time to and from the Department every day. So I smiled back at him
and thanked him while he helped me fill out a new daily payment form. Here is
how it worked out; I spent 30 minutes going to and from the Department yet
received one full hour of pay; I counted people for one and a half hours but
got paid for two and a half. So I worked two hours total and got paid for four
and this is what happened for the whole six days I actually worked for the
Census. On the sixth day I called as usual to find out if there was more work
and was informed that the Census was over, and I should return all my complete
or incomplete questionnaires immediately.

Surprised at
that news, I drove to the Department the next morning with my forms, my
official U.S. Census bag, about 15 pounds of reference manuals, instruction
books, forms, papers, and more forms. I turned in my final daily payment form
and proceeded to hand over the bag with the stuff. She looked at me with a
slightly irritated and confused expression, “What I am I supposed to do with
that?” she asked me. “How do I know?” I exclaimed, “It just seemed like you
would want it.” Grudgingly she accepted the stuff and I left for the last

About three
weeks later, an official letter from the U.S. Census Department arrived for
me, indicating that I must return all Census forms and paraphernalia under
penalty of law. Laughingly, I threw the letter out, musing how perfect an
ending that was to my experience with the government. Next day I received two
more exactly identical letters, each individually stamped and postmarked. I
bet three happy clerks in three separate departments mailed each one
separately at the same time. All according to government regulations.

Meredith is a painter. She has a masters degree from the Art Institute of