After years of working with data from the United States Census to help study the effect of growing up in a high-crime neighborhood on young men’s criminal careers, now I have the honor of collecting Census data in the field! For the past six weeks, I’ve been an enumerator, one of those people who knocks on doors asking for the name, sex, age, and racial/ethnic identification of every person who lived at every address on April 1 of this year.
It isn’t easy. The weather’s been hot and humid, there are a lot of stairs to climb, and a lot of apartment buildings have locked front doors and no way of contacting the inhabitants if you know only their addresses, not their phone numbers or names. This is the most physically exhausting job I’ve had since working in food service 27 years ago. (Well, that’s if you’re talking about paid employment. Recycling was a lot of physical work, too!)
But doing my very best to make sure every person living in the United States counts is really rewarding! I love explaining to international students that the Census is not just for citizens: They count, too, just because they are here, and I care about spelling their names correctly and pronouncing them correctly when I say them back. (Pronunciation isn’t entered into the database. But it matters! It’s not only about respecting the person in front of me now; it’s practice for me in making better guesses at how to pronounce and spell the names of other people I meet in the future.)
It’s wonderful that about 60% of Americans completed the Census online early in the year (so that we need to visit only the remaining households) and that we’re doing data entry in a dedicated smartphone app that shows me all the notes other enumerators have made on previous visits to an address where they weren’t able to collect data on the first try. Knowing things like, “This apartment is accessed from the side door,” is very useful.
But it’s difficult to find out who lived in a dwelling five months ago, if they’ve since moved away and somebody else moved into what was an empty apartment by the time they saw it! This would be so much easier if we’d started in April as originally scheduled. But we all know what was going on in April 2020….
I’m grateful to be in a region of the United States where coronavirus diagnoses have dropped in August and September to much lower prevalence than at my county’s peak in early July. Odds are low that any person I’m interviewing is an asymptomatic spreader, and I’ve interviewed only one person who was actively ill with COVID-19. (It’s been several weeks, so I didn’t catch it from him! I’m still praying for his full recovery, hoping he’s much better now.)
Even with these good odds, I’m being very diligent about mask-wearing and hygiene! The Census issued me 4 cloth masks that are well chosen for this job–they stay in place despite all the talking I have to do!–and plenty of hand sanitizer. Many people answer the door wearing a mask, or they take a moment to put on one when they realize they’ll be talking with me for several minutes–even though Pennsylvania’s mask mandate doesn’t require them to wear a mask inside their own home, as they technically are when standing in the doorway talking to me. Almost everyone remembers to stand back a little farther than they typically would, so that we can be six feet apart.
Meanwhile, Kitchen Stewardship asked me to write about the environmental and financial impact of disposable masks vs. cloth masks. As I was working on it, I realized that I’d been wearing only cloth masks during the pandemic and probably ought to give a disposable mask a try, just for fairness…. Click through to read about what I learned!
This article is part of a series written mostly by Katie Kimball (the main author of Kitchen Stewardship) on various issues related to masks. Katie has some great tips–complete with mnemonics and graphics–for how to wear a mask correctly. She’s skeptical about mask mandates because of her concerns that masks may have negative as well as positive effects on our health, which she’ll be exploring in future articles.
I’m not as skeptical. Sure, there are ways to be sloppy with your mask that could put you at risk, but in general I believe masks provide some reduction in the spread of coronavirus and other respiratory illnesses, without harming our health. They aren’t “germ magnets” any more than reusable grocery bags are–when you keep your mask on your face, the germs on the outside of it (that you might be able to pull through the fabric as you breathe or might get on your hands) are the germs that otherwise would land directly on your face or be breathed into your nose or mouth, no more. On the other hand, masks aren’t perfect protection, only risk reduction.
One of many reasons I’m glad to be enumerating the Census in a pandemic is that I’m seeing firsthand how at least one part of the federal government is doing something right! It’s encouraging, in this year when America seems to be falling apart in many ways, to have a government agency pay me well to do an important job using carefully-designed software (every app has its glitches, but this one is better than most!) and Personal Protective Equipment that really helps me feel safer. The job training was a brief in-person, small-group session in a park pavilion, followed by online training that was thorough and clear and helped me feel confident rather than shy about doing this job.
For every person I’ve encountered who is annoyed or suspicious about someone from the government bothering them with personal questions, I’ve met three or four who praise me for doing this job or express gratitude for this reminder that they count in our society. A lot of people are starving for face-to-face conversation these days! Some have been alone in a tiny apartment for a week when I suddenly knock on the door. Although my own isolation has been buffered by living with my family, I’ve been thriving on this opportunity to go places and talk to people!
The Census has sent me mostly to homes in my own neighborhood. Yards and apartment buildings that I’d only seen from the street for the past two decades are now places I’ve been; I’ve seen the view from the top of those stairs and the weird carpet in that hallway. I’ve learned just how many small apartments are tucked into the big buildings and odd little corners. The people in this crowded world seem more real to me–even when I’m not recognizing specific masked individuals as people I’ve interviewed–now that I’ve met so many of them.
I haven’t left southwestern Pennsylvania all year, but I am seeing America! There are people who’ve lived here all their lives and people who came from the other side of the Earth just for one year, young and old people of every color, all together in this database, this snapshot of who is right here, right now.
What a year this is! Many things about it are difficult and depressing, but it sure is memorable! In the future, younger people will ask us, “What was it like? How did you feel? What did you do in 2020?”
And I will say, I helped to conduct the United States Census in a pandemic. I was forty-seven years old and had arthritis, but I climbed thousands of stairs and knocked on doors until my knuckles ached, because every person counts. That’s why I wore a mask–not because it was required by my government (although it was) but because just in case I had caught the virus and didn’t know it yet, I didn’t want anyone else to get sick. Even if it wouldn’t kill them, even if it wouldn’t disable them permanently, even if it would bring them just a couple days of misery, I didn’t want anybody to suffer. At a time when America in many ways was looking kind of awful, I was reminded that we the people are America–and I wanted us all to get better!
Visit Hearth and Soul for other writers’ reflections on life in 2020.