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Intern Spotlight: Meet a Census Enumerator!

NDC planning intern Annalise was recently hired by the US Census Bureau as an enumerator. Also known as census takers, enumerators collect household and demographic data in assigned areas by interviewing households that have not yet responded to the Census. They are considered the “last line of defense” of getting an accurate count, which makes their role critical to understanding the state of our nation. The Bureau predicts that enumerators this year may be responsible for recording as much as 40% of the count. In this post Annalise shares some interesting information about the history of census takers nationwide, and specifically in Columbus.


My personal interest in the Census stems from my education as a city planner. This data is of vast importance, as it helps to inform policy making, research, and many other disciplines. Planners especially rely heavily on Census data in order to identify demographic changes over time and to see which neighborhoods are struggling or thriving, overall and in specific ways. I’ve used Census data countless times; to inform research, to create maps for displaying data and trends using ArcGIS, and to find data for my own personal interest. Because the Census has such personal significance to me, I wanted to be a part of the 2020 Census and assist in any way I could. I applied earlier this year and was extremely excited when I received a call a few weeks ago offering me a position as an enumerator. Typical roles of enumerators include knocking on the doors of non-responders in assigned neighborhoods and interviewing them, explaining what the Census is and why it’s so important and then recording their answers.

Enumerators have always been an important role.

The Census was established in 1790 and initially asked a very different set of questions: the name of the household head, the number of “free white” males and females, the number of other free people, and the number of enslaved people. Today, questions focus on more than just a headcount of people living in the US. It asks demographic questions such as race, sex, and age, as well as the relationship between and number of individuals in each household and whether it is rented or owned, for example.

An enumerator recording household information in 1950.

While people today can have the option to respond the to the Census online, as of June 28th, only 61.8% of US households have responded. In the city of Columbus the response rate is even lower, with 57.5%. This means I have a lot of work to do, and I’m sure I’ll gather some mixed responses from the people I encounter.

As an enumerator, you’re bound to have some memorable encounters

The Columbus Dispatch featured funny stories about their experiences in field, such as one enumerator from 1880 who encountered a woman that insisted she was 32 years old, even though her eldest daughter was 26 and she had been married for 27 years, featured to the far right. The other story is from St. Louis, included in a 1930 edition of the Dispatch, where a man proposed to his enumerator, who declined due to already being married; much to his chagrin, he “went down in the 1930 Census as single.”

Yikes! A Dispatch edition from June 1900 featured this alarming story from Akron.

However, I might want to be prepared to encounter people who aren’t friendly to the U.S. Census. People are not always welcoming of enumerators, as is to be expected of a stranger knocking on your door and asking personal questions. I also read of stories of enumerators kicked out of businesses or bars, or people banding together in their refusal to answer questions.

An 1890 edition of the Dispatch includes a poem entitled, “The Census Enumerator”:

They say he needn't come
For they would all be dumb
And never would the information give;
And, if he should persist,
They'd give him foot and fist
And make his life too sorrowful to live.

Now hear their angry cry:
"Enumerator, why
Did you not come to learn of me and mine."
Am I then to be missed?
Say, put me in the list
Or there'll be trouble all along the line! 

However, if I do a proper job of explaining what the Census is and its necessity, I’m sure everyone will understand the importance of them and their family being included in the US population count. The data the 2020 Census will provide will be vital in informing policy and planning decisions for the next decade, as well as providing useful and interesting information to the general public.

So if you haven’t yet, please respond to the 2020 Census. And if an enumerator comes to your house, please be kind to them!


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