Census Workers Face Vitriol And Violence

Census workers knock on doors, hoping to count people who haven't yet mailed back their forms. This year, some homeowners and tenants have met the census takers with violence. The Washington Post's Carol Morello relates stories of workers attacked by everything from pit bulls to baseball bats.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Census takers are out on the streets, knocking on the doors of those who haven't mailed back the forms. And while most homeowners are gracious, more than a few respond with curses, threats and the occasional baseball bat. With three weeks left to go, the remaining residents may be the toughest. The Constitution requires the government to count the population every 10 years, and there are no estimates allowed. The census counts us one by one.

Over the years, protests came from minority groups who complain that they were undercounted. Immigrants worry about their legal status and they can be hesitant to fill out the questionnaire. This time around, though, more census takers are running into another group not participating: people fed up with the federal government.

If you've worked for the census in years past or this year, what kind of reception did you get? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Washington Post staff writer Carol Morello reported on the threats and assaults on census workers and joins us from a studio at the newspaper. Nice to have you with us today.

Ms. CAROL MORELLO (Staff writer, Washington Post): Hi, Neal. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And I know that we're talking about some relatively minor incidents. But there was one you reported on in Baltimore where a census taker was killed.

Ms. MORELLO: Yes, that one just happened about two weeks ago. He was shot and - he was shot seven times right after he had dropped off a coworker at her home. He was still on the job, but as far as both the police and the census are concerned, his shooting had nothing to do with his actual field work. But he was still on the job. He was the first census taker to be killed while working this year.

CONAN: But, again, no evidence that he was shot because he was a census taker.

Ms. MORELLO: Not that I'm aware off, no.

CONAN: Okay. The other incidents, though, there are - well, what is different this year?

Ms. MORELLO: Well, the numbers are different. Mainly, there's been 379 incidents, and this is as of Friday.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MORELLO: Just to give you an idea how quickly it's going up, when I had asked a week before that, it had been 242. While the number is not huge in terms of there being 600 census takers out there walking the street, it's still more than double the 181 they had last year. So it's really just numbers and there are three weeks to go. And as you say, the toughest ones are still ahead of us. So I'm sure there's more than 379 already.

CONAN: So you misspoke, you said 600, you mentioned 600,000 census workers out.

Ms. MORELLO: Yes, 600,000, yes. Thank you.

CONAN: And most people will never see a census worker because they mailed back the form.

Ms. MORELLO: That's correct. So if you didn't mail back the form, there's something like 48 million households where people didn't move -didn't mail back the form. So they've been sending census takers out pretty much since the beginning of May.

CONAN: And a lot of the time people didn't mail back the form because they forgot it or they lost it or something. It's something innocuous.

Ms. MORELLO: Most of the time it's something innocuous. And some people didn't mail them back because they have ideological objections to the government asking personal questions. That only brings the census taker to their door though.

CONAN: Yeah, but I saw the form. I mailed it back this year. There weren't any personal questions other than my name.

Ms. MORELLO: Well, some people have said, for example, they think the government has - only has the right to ask them how many people live in their home, not to ask them whether they own their home or have a mortgage or whether they rent, not to ask them what their race is or for their birthdates.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MORELLO: Some people guard their privacy very, very zealously.

CONAN: And more this year than in the past. Is this ideological fervor?

Ms. MORELLO: Well, the Census Bureau says it's really - it doesn't appear to be - they haven't noticed that they are any more than in the past. I mean, certainly, the numbers would seem there are more incidents involving violence or threats against census takers this year. But there are - some of the regional directors think that may just be with the Internet. Everyone is a little bit more aware of it and more people are reporting it.

You know, some of these 379 incidents they've had so far, some of them are very minor. A woman got between a angry duck and a toddler. And the duck nibbled at her feet. She had sandals on. So she had to go have a tetanus shot. She was bitten about 15 times. But some of them were very serious. There was a census taker in Wisconsin, a woman who was grabbed by a man whose door she knocked on and he tried to pull her in. There was another woman who was sexually assaulted. There have been 12 incidents where census takers were actually shot at. And there've been dozens of incidents where there has been a threat involved in weapon, anything from guns to a crossbow to knives, you name it, or a baseball bat.

CONAN: Fernando Armstrong - you quote the Philadelphia Regional Census director responsible for Maryland and the District of Columbia - said, it's the degree of passion they have. When they don't want to participate, they really don't want to participate.

Ms. MORELLO: That's right. He thinks the numbers are not growing, and this is his fifth sentence that he - census that he's been in. But he does feel that people who guard their privacy and their independence are feeling it much more strongly and expressing it more strongly this year than in years past.

CONAN: And you quote another census worker, Grover Ellis, who came across a woman who considered him an agent of President Obama, not of the U.S. government.

Ms. MORELLO: Several people have met that - when I talked to four or five census workers, several people told me that people they had tried to interview this year had mentioned President Obama to them. On the other hand, Grover Ellis told me that after he spoke with this woman for a while, she ended up giving him all the information that he needed. So apparently, she just needed to vent a little bit.

CONAN: Here's an email from Callie(ph) in San Francisco. Perhaps the bad behavior is a result of the tactics used by the workers, beating on doors as if they were police pursuing a murderer, harassing phone calls, et cetera. Is anyone monitoring them?

Ms. MORELLO: Well, I'm not aware - certainly, I know the Census Bureau does not condone any sort of harassment. But under the census regulations, they are allowed to go - they are expected to go visit a home when someone has not responded up to three times and to make three phone calls. And if that doesn't work, then they can go to the apartment manager or to neighbors. But there supposed to be at least six attempts to make contacts, three in person and three by phones. Those are the census regulations. Knocking on the door, I don't know who would consider that to be harassment.

CONAN: And perhaps, she got that idea from my turn of phrase when I said banging on the door. I'm sure they just knock on the door, ring the doorbell or whatever is there. In any case, let's get some callers in on the conversation. If you've been part of the census this year or in past years, give us a call. What kind of reception did you get? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Justin(ph) is on the line from Tulsa.

JUSTIN (Caller): Hi there. I'm a census employee here in Tulsa, at the moment. And overall, the reception has been pretty good this year. And, you know, I haven't had any big problems. But one such case that kind of goes in line with what you spoke of earlier is that the woman was very hostile at the beginning. But really, the main issue, I got the interview completed. But what it took was explaining to people how does census affected them locally, not just at the federal level. I think a lot of people don't realize how that money allocation goes directly to their neighborhood based off their census count. And, you know, training obviously. They tried to equip us to, you know, help people that are hesitant to answer with that information.

But that's really been the big deal that people that have been somewhat, you know, reluctant to say anything, once they realized this isn't some big federal government program and it's more of something dealing directly with them, they're much more open to talk about it.

CONAN: And I assume you don't arrive in a black helicopter.

JUSTIN: No. We don't arrive in black suits and ties. They try to tell you look presentable but, you know, also look approachable. You want to be - you want them to understand that you're not just some government employee. You're usually are interviewing people within your own neighborhood. So you have stake in it as well.

CONAN: All right. Carol Morello, the purposes to which this information is put, as Justin suggests, is that, well, among other things, federal allocations are dependent on how many people live in a district.

Ms. MORELLO: That's correct. And it's the same with apportionment for Congress. So people have a lot to gain, as well as the money that they're reaching gets, that their town, their communities gets, it's how many representatives there will be in - their state will have.

CONAN: Here's an email question from Charles(ph) in Sunnyvale, California. Is there any legal obligation to cooperate with census takers?

Ms. MORELLO: Yes, there is. It's mandated. There is - on the books, theoretically, you could be fined $5,000 for not responding to the census. Every time I ask whether anyone has ever been fined that, I'm told that they prefer not to fine and just to convince people that they should follow it. But on the books, there's a $5,000 fine.

Ms. MORELLO: Let's go next to Frederick(ph), Frederick with us from Calistoga in California.

FREDERICK (Caller): Hi. I have been working with the census for the past months here in - I'm in Napa Valley, which is a rural - I would consider it to be pretty upscale, very rural community. And I've found that people who live in the valley, who are away, let's say, in a rural vineyard, they're appreciating their solitude. And I have, by and large, had very good interaction with people. They're very surprised to find that I'm there at the door. You can imagine.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

FREDERICK: But I've been met with very courteous - and people are agreeable to work with me. I think the anti-government, Tea Party, rabid conservatism doesn't affect this region. And I'm wondering if you haven't found that it's a regional thing, like you wouldn't expect people in Northern California to be a Tea Party rabid conservative anti-government people.

CONAN: Carol Morello?

Ms. MORELLO: Well, I've asked the census about that. They say they have not been able to detect any difference, either based on the geography or on demographics. It seems when there is that anti-government sentiment, which is really, as you say, not in that many people, but when they do encounter it, it's everywhere. It's not any one place.

CONAN: Frederick, thanks, and continued good luck to you.

FREDERICK: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking with Carol Morello, The Washington Post, about the difficulties census workers have encountered this year. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Holly(ph). Holly with us from Ann Arbor.

HOLLY (Caller): Hey, good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

HOLLY: Well, I had a couple of people be belligerent with me when I was enumerating for the census, but the biggest problem I would say I had, was even catching people at home, even going at different times of the day - and then finding proxies, which would neighbors who would understand the status of the house...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

HOLLY: ...and finding them at home. And sometimes, I had a very difficult time finding people who were available to speak to me.

CONAN: So it's just that people are out or vacationing in the Caribbean or something?

HOLLY: No. Out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HOLLY: Well, I guess out, or working, or out out and working at different times of the day.

CONAN: But so far as you know, they weren't hiding behind curtains and waiting for you to go away?

HOLLY: Well, I can't say that that wasn't true in some of the homes that I went to. I would say it was definitely true that people did not come to the door in some cases, too.

CONAN: Hmm.

HOLLY: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: Well, all right. But nobody's approached you, thrown a patio table at you or anything like that?

HOLLY: No. I had one woman be very belligerent with me and had some conspiracy theory about why her information was being taken and why people were coming to her door. But like your previous caller said, I could - I managed to talk her down to the point that she gave me the information. But, you know, census workers aren't necessarily trained in how to talk people down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Oh. That may not be part of the training, Holly.

HOLLY: Yeah, the training, yeah.

CONAN: Holly, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

HOLLY: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Email from Robin(ph) in Elkhart, Indiana: I was assigned to get those hold-outs who had previously resisted all attempts at being counted. My turf was a backwoods area of rural Indiana. One memorable incident was a man half-dressed yelling at me from the stoop of his trailer. All I needed were the quick answers. And he yelled: Why do want to talk to me? It's only me and my nephew who live here. My gas was shut off three months ago and I heat this place with space heaters, probably butane. I don't own this heap. I rent it. In the course of his cursing me and my purpose, he gave me the minimum of questions that I needed for his form.

Do you have any information, Carol Morella, on the places that are undercounted? Are they rural places or are they inner cities?

Ms. MORELLO: Actually, I think it's large cities are undercounted more than rural places. There are, you know, at least in term of sheer numbers of people, the cities have been a perennial problem. And some of the states that are the most rural had very high response rates, like the states in the upper Great Plains...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MORELLO: ...you know, North and South Dakota. So I don't think it's necessarily rural, although they tend to have to send enumerators to a lot of rural places because they don't deliver to mailboxes. They have to deliver actually to the home, to - they don't deliver to post boxes...

CONAN: I see.

Ms. MORELLO: ...like a P.O. Box.

CONAN: Let's go next to Carol(ph). Carol with us from Springboro in Ohio.

CAROL (Caller): Hi. Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Sure.

CAROL: Love your show. I was an enumerator just a month ago, actually, May. And I was this - it was funny because the one question that nobody ever had an issue with and they did have a lot of issues with the birthdates and how you're related to the - your household members, but the do you rent, own or own your house free and clear, and nobody ever cared (technical difficulty)

CONAN: Hello?

CAROL: (technical difficulty) But my question was, is the census going to send out people two-by-two in the future? Because I know that there are some neighborhoods I didn't want to go as a woman...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

FN: ...by myself. I was wondering if they're ever going to change that around.

CONAN: Carol Morello, I know you address the issue of arming census enumerators, but could they call for backup?

Ms. MORELLO: Well, they're not going to arm them. A couple of census takers told me they'd like to be able to have something defensive, but the Census Bureau won't go for that. I'm just imagining the first story where a census taker uses mace on a homeowner. I think that would be a PR nightmare for them. But, look, they will now send people out in teams of two or more people if they feel there is a problem. If I - I've spoken with enumerators who have gone to homes that, for a variety of reasons, they believed was dangerous to go up because they - it was a drug house. And so the only way that anyone's going to go back is in a team of multiple people, perhaps even with police. So I don't know about that. But they will send people out in pairs to places that are particularly difficult...

CONAN: I was just...

Ms. MORELLO: ...just not on the first visit.

CONAN: I was going to say even our enumerator from Napa Valley, sometimes they grow things other than wine in some of those places. Carol, I'm glad there were no incidents where you were involved.

CAROL: Oh, thank you.

CONAN: We appreciate the phone call.

CAROL: Uh-huh. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We'll end with this email from Dorothy. I've been a census worker for almost a year now. In this latest phase where we knock on doors, most people are cooperative, but I have been threatened by a homeowner who threatened me with her dogs. I've had more than one person say, I'm not interested. I try to inform them it's not a matter of interest but of law. They seem to think it's an optional response. I've had three doors slammed in my face and had to get the information from a landlord or neighbor.

Carol Morello of The Washington Post has been writing about the run-up to the end of the census, the last three weeks when the hold-outs are being approached and called and asked for their information. Thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Ms. MORELLO: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Carol Morello joined us from a studio at The Washington Post.

Tomorrow, Queen Latifah will talk to us about her new book and take your phone calls. Be with us for that.

I'm Neal Conan, TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News.

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