The U.S. Census Bureau is short by more than 25% of the door knockers needed for the 2020 census, according to its watchdog agency, and it's about to let go of its least productive census takers.
Both developments highlight persistent questions about whether the bureau has enough manpower to get a complete and accurate head count under an accelerated time frame preferred by the Trump administration. Bureau officials, though, say they are pleased with the progress made by census takers and are on pace to finish the job.
The Office of Inspector General's alert this week says it's concerned about the bureau’s ability to hire and retain workers, with six weeks left in the count that helps determine the distribution of $1.5 trillion in federal spending and how many congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state gets.
The bureau needed more than 300,000 census takers by the end of August but by mid-month, just 220,000 census takers were trained and ready to start knocking on the doors of households that haven’t yet responded to the census. Thirty-seven of the nation's 248 census offices aren’t even halfway toward reaching their hiring goals, the office said.
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“Without taking timely action, the bureau is at risk of not conducting a complete and accurate 2020 Census,” the memorandum from the Office of Inspector General said.
The bureau acknowledges that more than a third of people hired to be census takers aren’t showing up for either training or their assignments.
Despite the greater-than-expected attrition, the bureau said it has increased productivity while aggressively training new workers to fill the slots of no-shows.
The statistical agency is still recruiting and hiring census takers to fill the jobs of people who have dropped out over coronavirus fears or other concerns, and it's giving cash awards to the most experienced census takers.
Census takers have been given face masks and hand sanitizers, and they're instructed to maintain at least six feet of distance while asking households in-person questions about their race, sex, Hispanic origin and relationships to each other.
“Our census takers are working more hours and completing more cases than we had planned,” the bureau said in statement.
The census taker shortfall is coming as the bureau's operational plan calls for it to let go of less productive door knockers and transfer their caseloads to higher performers so that the most experienced census takers can work on the hardest-to-reach households.
The low-performing census takers will stop working before the census ends on September 30, according a review of operational plans, interviews and bureau emails obtained by The Associated Press.
“They say, ‘Thank you. Your work is over,’” said John Thompson, a former bureau director in the Obama administration. “If the person is doing a bunch of work and not getting completed cases then ... at that point, you are better off without them.”
The 2020 census has been hampered by the pandemic and a shortened schedule caused by congressional inaction.
Starting later than planned because of the pandemic, the door-knocking phase of the 2020 census began in some areas in July, but widespread door-knocking didn't begin until earlier this month, and it was expected to last through October.
However, that planning was contingent on Congress extending bureau deadlines for turning over figures used for the redrawing of congressional and legislative districts into next year.
The requested extensions passed the Democratic-controlled House, but the Republican-controlled Senate hasn't acted on it. Without them, the bureau earlier this month announced the census would stop at the end of September instead of the end of October. That decision is being challenged in court.
By not extending the apportionment deadline, the final numbers used for redrawing congressional districts will have to be turned in by Dec. 31, while Trump is still in office, even if the Republican president loses the November election.
The Senate’s inaction coincides with a memorandum President Donald Trump issued last month trying to exclude people living in the U.S. illegally from being counted for reapportionment. More than a half dozen lawsuits have been filed, challenging Trump’s memorandum.
In a court filing for one of the lawsuits, Al Fontenot, an associate director at the bureau, said the president's order has had no impact on field operations for the census, and that the agency remains committed to counting each person in the U.S.
“The Census Bureau intends to meet a similar level of household responses as collected in prior censuses, including outreach to hard-to-count communities," Fontenot said.
As of this week, 64% of households have self-responded to the questionnaire either online, by telephone or through the mail. Census takers have gotten responses from another 8.7% of households. But the census takers' jobs will get harder with each passing week, since the households most likely to answer the questions are visited first during the door-knocking phase, said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former congressional staffer who specialized in census issues.
Census takers typically will try to visit non-responding households six times. After three failed attempts, a census taker can use neighbors or landlords as proxies to get answers about a household. If there are sufficient administrative records about a household, the census taker may only need to visit once.
The bureau is “still recruiting, and they keep saying we have plenty of workers and not to worry because we can do this faster with plenty of enumerators,” said Lowenthal, who is now a census consultant. “But that is not what we are hearing from the field and now the Inspector General report is confirming that.”
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