Bathroom availability, especially with the pandemic, would be limited. We were to expect that proxies would be impossible to find. “These people live way out in the country,” Markus explained. “They want to be left alone.” Then, there were the snakes, fire ants, and chiggers, a revelation that caused one member of the Connecticut delegation to shout, “What in the heck is a chigger?” As Markus sagely explained, “If you get bit by one, you’ll know.”
In a debrief call later in the week, a census taker on loan from Florida brought up an issue he had with a local case where he had arrived at a house to find a sign on the door explaining that because gun ammunition is expensive, the homeowner doesn’t fire warning shots. The enumerator had opted not to knock. “You’re gonna see a lot of that,” Markus said. “These backwoods people, they love their guns. I love my gun. If you feel uncomfortable doing the case, don’t do the case.”
At least three of my fellow enumerators reported having guns pulled on them while entering a property to conduct an interview, one field supervisor told me on condition of anonymity. That two of them successfully managed to complete the cases in question speaks to another crucial feature of the census: In spite of the countless challenges, complications, administrative inefficiencies, federal self-sabotage, and bureaucratic nightmares, the process also involves workers on the ground who are deeply committed to the mission.
As the days went on, the success stories rolled in. One part of our census area went from a 16 percent completion rate to 66 percent in two weeks. The Macon area, which had the second- or third-worst response rates out of 248 census areas across the country, started getting national recognition in leadership calls. Other team members would be dispatched to Alabama and Louisiana, while travel assignments also came up in Illinois and the tribal areas of Arizona. Back in Yonkers, my home district was training enumerators to visit homeless shelters and food banks.
But for all these small wins, the census was no match for 2020. During shifts in Georgia, it hadn’t been unusual to receive dirty looks or stray comments about wearing a mask, even as some residents warned us that people on their block had COVID-19. More devastating yet, enumerators in Rochester, New York, were being sent out into the field in pairs after heated protests broke out following reports that Daniel Prude, a mentally distressed Black man, had died of suffocation while being taken into police custody, a development that added the city to the ranks of the many to experience unrest over issues of racial injustice this year.
Read: How racial data gets 'cleaned' in the U.S. census
The months-long delay of the counting period also placed the work in the middle of natural-disaster season. While wildfires were blazing in the West, threatening basic life in California, Oregon, and Washington, much of my team sat idle for a day as Hurricane Sally dumped heavy rain on Georgia.