Government

Poor training and technology woes concern Iowa census takers

'Most frustrating census to ever occur in America,' one says

A box of census materials, some of which arrived even after she'd left her position, is seen Tuesday at the home of Amy
A box of census materials, some of which arrived even after she’d left her position, is seen Tuesday at the home of Amy Bennett in Manchester. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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Census workers in Iowa say poor training, technology problems and waste — not to mention the challenges of counting population during a pandemic and after a derecho — make them question the accuracy of the count here.

“Census figures, we use them for so many things,” said Amy Bennett, 48, of Manchester, who worked five months as an assistant field manager for the U.S. Census Bureau in Iowa. “If it’s incorrect, we wait 10 years to get new information. That could affect so many things. Federal dollars go where people live.”

The 2020 census ended Oct. 15 after the U.S. Supreme Court approved a request to override a lower court order to extend the count through Halloween. The Trump administration argued the Census Bureau needed more time to deliver final counts by Dec. 31.

Iowa was marked as 99.9 percent counted as of Oct. 17, which was the same percentage as every other state and Puerto Rico. The Census Bureau said 71.5 percent of Iowans responded online or by phone or mail to census surveys, with 28.4 percent counted through a follow-up campaign at the end.

Nationwide, population numbers dictate how more than $675 billion in federal money is spent on schools, housing and transportation. The count also determines apportionment of seats in Congress and affects how local voting districts are drawn.

Questions have been raised about undercounts of renters, low-income Americans and minority groups, particularly Native Americans living on reservations, given the shortened census period.

Head count in Iowa

The Census Bureau hired more than 500,000 people to work in temporary jobs across the nation. Iowa’s staff-up started last fall, first with supervisors and field managers and then with enumerators, or people who go door-to-door during the second phase of the count.

Katie Gilbert, 43, of rural Warren County, was hired Jan. 3 and worked eight months with the Census Bureau. Her last post was as manager of the group quarters survey, which counts communal living quarters like prisons, college dorms and nursing homes.

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“Most frustrating census to ever occur in America,” she said of 2020. “This year has people on edge. We’ve never been so divided politically. With the pandemic, people were just over it.”

Gilbert worked with colleges and universities to submit through a secure online portal the counts of students who would have been living in their communities if COVID-19 hadn’t sent them home. Most large universities did a good job of turning in their data early, but some smaller schools and nursing homes waited until the last minute.

“Then the derecho hit,” Gilbert said of the Aug. 10 windstorm that caused heavy damage across Iowa, but especially around Cedar Rapids.

At that point, Gilbert worried accuracy would be sacrificed to speed as leaders rushed to finish by the end of September.

Gilbert quit that month. But she praised her Des Moines team members — a diverse group in age, race and politics — saying they worked hard under difficult circumstances.

Training, technology

Bennett never got a chance to do much work during her five months with the Census Bureau. She was hired in late February but spent months in a holding pattern as COVID-19 stalled some parts of the census.

The nonresponse follow-up, first set for May 13 through July 31, didn’t start until Aug. 9.

In mid-July, Bennett got a call that her first training session would be four days later in Charles City, 90 minutes away. She drove there and met for two hours with three other new employees and their trainers, who handed out new iPads and iPhones to be the exclusive means of recording census data.

“Two of us of four had used Apple products before,” Bennett said. “The other two women were in their mid-60s. I spent 25 to 30 minutes helping one lady use the home button on her iPad.”

Bennett came home with a large box of census forms to hand out during the door-knocking phase. She started doing online tutorials assigned by her supervisors. She finally was getting paid (or least she should have been; her paycheck didn’t come until September).

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The third week of July, Bennett was told she would be training and supervising enumerators, which she didn’t feel capable of doing with so little training herself.

“How am I going to mentor or coach them when I don’t even know what’s going on?” Bennett remembers thinking. She quit soon after, sending back the iPad and iPhone. But she still has the untouched forms.

“I know they were working with short staff in Des Moines, but all the way through it was the most incredibly painful process to get hired and get going,” Bennett said.

Bill Manning, 65, of Winterset, also described technology issues.

“Whoever decided to use the Apple iPhone, that totally made everything a disaster,” said Manning, who worked as a census field manager for six months. “The census uses a lot of retirees and old people. They could not figure out how to use these suckers. Of the people who quit the census, the main reason they quit was because of an iPhone.”

‘Dangerous’ homes

Richard Peal, 49, of Chicago, was one of many workers brought in from neighboring states to help with the final weeks of the Iowa census. He primarily worked in Eastern Iowa, knocking on doors from Anamosa to Atalissa.

He visited many households in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City and was concerned not all residents were being counted. The Census Bureau allows workers to mark addresses as “dangerous” for reasons that could include threatening dogs, registered sex offenders or verbal abuse from the resident.

“Ironically, I did not find anything dangerous, dogs or otherwise, about any of these cases which were listed on my census ‘dangerous list’,” he said.

Peal told his supervisor about his fears low-income people were disproportionately being added to the dangerous list. He also complained about census questions about race, saying they used outdated or incorrect terminology. Peal resigned in September, he said.

The Gazette visited several addresses marked as dangerous by Census Bureau employees. At one Iowa City mobile home, resident Cody Hogan, 26, wondered if a broken board on his porch might have made his house seem dangerous or if it was the barking of his two dogs, a boxer and an Akita.

“The dogs are loud, but they are lovers once they get to know you,” he said.

Hogan said he remembers talking with a census worker and being counted earlier this year.

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More than a dozen mobile homes in the Edgewood Forest Mobile Home Park in Cedar Rapids were marked as dangerous, possibly because of heavy damage from the Aug. 10 derecho. A visit to the park last week found several of the listed addresses were uninhabited, left damaged with broken windows and smashed walls.

Leaders respond

The Census Bureau has acknowledged COVID-19 delayed the start of the head count, compressing some timelines and shifting others.

For example, the group quarters phase was supposed to last just two months, but ended up taking five. Service-based enumeration, in which staff counted people experiencing homelessness at soup kitchens and shelters, was supposed to be March 30-April 1, but instead happened Sept. 22-24.

To supplement reduced in-person contact, the bureau had workers try to reach residents by phone, email and mail.

As census efforts wrapped up in some states, workers were shifted to states that needed more help, including Iowa, the bureau said in responses to questions from The Gazette.

“The U.S. Census Bureau sent successful teams of census takers — upon completion of their assigned areas — to areas that require more help. Using experienced staff minimized the need to train new staff.”

When asked about the “dangerous list,” the bureau replied:

“While going door to door, the safety of our census takers remained a high priority to us. As part of their training, we taught safety precautions that included census takers alerting their supervisor if they felt unsafe visiting an assigned address.”

If an address was considered unsafe or the enumerator exhausted his or her efforts to do an in-person interview, the bureau instructed the enumerator to find a proxy source, such as a neighbor or building manager, to obtain basic information about the tenant.

“The Census Bureau is committed to a complete and accurate count and will use the best methodologies available to resolve the very small number of unresolved addresses and to ensure that our data products are accurate,” the bureau said.

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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