'Beyond negligent': Census workers describe logistical nightmare as deadline approaches

It's the latest indication of the issues plaguing the bureau as it fulfills its constitutional mandate to count all persons living in the U.S.
YMCA Youth Ambassadors Encourage Census Participation At Food Distribution Sites
A YMCA youth ambassador conducts a Census 2020 interview in Los Angeles on Aug. 12, 2020.Patrick T. Fallon / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

When Dean Arnold started working for the Census Bureau in late August, the work was more difficult than he had imagined. The agency gave him about two weeks of training as an enumerator after the coronavirus pandemic disrupted the original timeline of the 2020 census this year.

Arnold braved the scorching temperatures of summer in Los Angeles to knock on the doors of people who he was told hadn't filled out the census. He said he felt a civic duty to help, but he couldn't have anticipated the sheer volume of logistical challenges: duplicate or incorrect addresses, technical issues with the iPhone app census workers used to fill out the surveys, residents who had already filled out the census online and resistance from people who just didn't trust the government with their data.

"It was hard, especially because of the political environment we're in," he said by phone, adding, "Many people told me, 'I don't want Trump to take this information.'"

In the final stretch of the census count, Arnold's experience, along with the experiences of others who spoke to NBC News, is the latest indication of the issues plaguing the bureau as it fulfills its constitutional mandate to count all persons living in the U.S.

The agency announced last month that it would end all of its counting efforts on Sept. 30, a month earlier than previously expected. And although a federal judge recently ordered the bureau to temporarily stop following its plan to wind down operations early, a leaked internal Census Bureau document sent to the House Oversight Committee and obtained by NBC News this month warned that the agency already has far less time and fewer resources to review the data than in previous years.

The internal document warns that the "highly compressed" timeline, as well as limits on activities like door-knocking and data review, will lead to less accurate results.

Only about 66 percent of households have so far self-responded to the census, with only a few weeks remaining to compile the data that illustrates the racial makeup of America and helps determine the distribution of $1.5 trillion in federal aid and how many congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state gets, according to the agency. An additional 25 percent have been counted in person, leaving nearly 14 million households uncounted.

Many of those left out live in hard-to-reach areas, such as rural communities and areas with limited access to the internet. Disproportionately affected are Native tribes, Latinos, Asian Americans and Black Americans, who already have historically been undercounted.

Arnold said the issues he faced made him fear that Los Angeles' large minority population would also be underrepresented. He said it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to get all the data he needed because of the time it took to get through all of the necessary questions using the app. He found more success by memorizing the questions and shortening the script, which he said helped him complete more cases.

Then he was laid off. He said his supervisor told him by phone that he did a great job but that there were too many enumerators in the city for the number of cases. Just 56 percent of Los Angeles residents had self-responded through Saturday.

In a rural town in Colorado, another worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity because workers aren't authorized to speak to the media, painted a different picture of having been given incentives and multiple bonuses to keep working on as many homes as possible. The worker described an abundance of counters in the area, which the source described as a small "red-leaning" town.

"I'm not sure why they need us in this rural country so much, but they do," the worker said.

The worker recounted similar issues with the questionnaire process and with using the census app and described indifference from a supervisor when the worker reported physical threats from residents who were agitated by repeated visits from enumerators.

"I'm so disgusted with the whole situation," the worker said, adding: "I know it can be a hassle and filled with the bureaucracy, but this is above and beyond. It's suspicious to me."

A census worker from San Francisco, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, began knocking on doors in August after having undergone two hours of in-person training. This worker said workers were given a link for online classes about how to use the program's app-based survey system.

But the preparation was inadequate, said the source, who also described technical issues with the app.

"There were times when I would be mid-interview and it would literally stop," the worker said.

The worker also came across many occupants who said they had already completed census questionnaires.

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Tim Olson, the agency's associate director of field operations, defended the operation in a telephone interview and brushed off enumerators' concerns.

"Certainly, we have people who are frustrated working in an environment that is a long and intense process, because the time for every census is already very tight," Olson said. "It would surprise me if you were not hearing from workers."

Olson said that the technical glitches are to be expected, particularly in rural areas where internet connectivity is spotty, and that the agency has training updates to help workers streamline their collection efforts.

"Some people have problems [with the iPhone], and most people are just fine," he said. "If they're out in an area with no internet, sometimes it freezes up on them."

Olson defended recent layoffs by saying some workers are let go to allow the "best of the best" to enumerate people in harder-to-reach areas.

The issues described by the workers, however, have only heightened the worries of officials who fear a 10-year mistake.

House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., urged Democratic and Republican leaders in a letter this month to pass legislation to extend the deadline to ensure that the census is accurate, but legislation is stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate. The House passed a bill in May.

Julie Menin, the census director for New York City, said in a telephone interview that she believes the logistical issues and other factors are part of a pattern from the administration to use the traditionally nonpartisan census as a political cudgel.

"The overlay here is that there has been constant inference in the census by the Trump administration from the get-go," Menin said, noting the unsuccessful attempts to exclude undocumented immigrants and to add a citizenship question to the census.

The inspector general of the Commerce Department, which oversees the census, raised concerns in a letter Aug. 18 that a lack of enumerators presented the risk of not having a "complete and accurate" census.

The roughly 240,000 workers the agency has now are half the workforce of the 2010 census, which had 564,000, according to a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Olson described the enumeration issues not as interference but as the agency's implementing new technologies and strategies that have allowed it to do more with fewer enumerators. He said the agency is "ahead of schedule from where we expected to be."

But Menin said the number of enumerators is abysmal.

"To have half the number of enumerators that existed in 2010 is beyond negligent," Menin said. "It's taking what is a core democratic principle, the census, that is embedded in our Constitution and completely eviscerating it."

Rich Schapiro contributed.