2020 Census Q&A: How an accurate count impacts early education resources

We interviewed Jon Artz, Program Officer at South Carolina First Steps, about his experience as a 2020 Census taker, and the importance of making sure individuals are counted — especially young children.

What is your current position with South Carolina First Steps?
I am a Program Officer at South Carolina First Steps and I’ve been there 3 years now. I provide program support to my 6 assigned counties: Darlington, Richland, Lexington, Abbeville, Greenwood, and Calhoun.

What made you decide to get involved in Census work? How does it relate to your work with First Steps?
I’ve always thought that the Census is important, because I know that it has to do with distribution of federal resources to the states that eventually trickles down to the local level. But I actually got more interested when I heard this year that children 0 to 5 — but especially the newborns, babies, and younger children — are the most undercounted. I was not aware of that and I thought this really links up with the work that we all do at First Steps, working with young children, 0 to 5. It just felt very important to me to do whatever I could to help make sure that this population gets counted to the best of our ability, this time around.

What is your role with the 2020 Census?
I am what they call a Census Enumerator. Kind of a fancy word, but some people just say Census Worker or Census Taker. But the Census Enumerator assists people in filling out the Census questionnaire. The Census questionnaire can be filled out by mail, online, over the phone or in person. And the job that I signed up for was to help people do it in person. So I’m showing up at their door and walking them through the questions for the Census.

What does a typical day look like for you as a Census taker?
All the follow up that I’m doing for the people who did not respond to the Census questionnaire is in the evenings, so I go from 6 to 8. And then on Sunday morning, starting at 9, I’ll usually do about 9 to 12 or 1. It can be a different experience every day, even though I’m doing the same work. You knock on someone’s door, and you never know what mood or what moment you’ll catch someone in, or what their level of understanding of the Census is. It’s just interesting to me, the diversity of people that I’ve met; older folks, college students. And just trying to have that — even though it’s a very short — relationship that you’re having in a 5 or 10 minute conversation. It really is all about how that first 10 seconds goes.

What do you say to those individuals you encounter who are skeptical of the Census?
There are usually two reasons why people are skeptical of the Census. One is, “Is their information going to be kept private?” From the Census training that I received, privacy and confidentiality of information is really of utmost importance for the Census Bureau. Individuals can mail in their response, in which case, I will never see what they say. They can go online and do it through a secure website. And I encourage folks to do that as well. I also show them the phone I’m using and how once I put an answer in, I can’t really go back to it, and it’s gone. It goes off to the Census Bureau and I can’t share it with anyone; it’s off my phone. I also have an information sheet I provide, which talks about confidentiality.

The other part is folks wanting to understand what the information is going to be used for. And when you start to explain that it’s counting everyone in the state and the county, and even in the neighborhood they live in, and that can determine resources like hospitals, school funding, road construction, representation in Congress. One program that uses Census information to figure out funding formulas is Head Start and Early Head Start. That’s an important program that people know that I can say specifically by name. And people say, “Oh, I know that program.” I use that as an example of why it’s important to just figure out how many small children live in a particular area so we can make sure there’s adequate space in our Head Start program. When you start to talk about those things, a lot of people realize that it is important that their family and neighbors are counted.

Where does your Census work take place?
Almost everything I’m doing is in Richland County, which is where I live. Most of the Census taking I’ve been doing is in my own neighborhood. There have been a couple days where I didn’t even get in my car; I just grabbed my Census bag and started walking around the neighborhood. I got to meet a lot of new neighbors. That actually helps when I start talking to people, and if they’re a little skeptical, I can say “Well I just live one street over and I filled out my Census,” and that helps make the connection. I have also driven around Columbia to some new neighborhoods that I’m not familiar with. We don’t have that many Census takers on our team that speak Spanish, so I have been assigned to a lot of Spanish-speaking households because I do speak enough Spanish to complete the Census questionnaire with them.

How do you approach language barriers as a Census taker?
We have a language sheet that they give us that you can hand to someone if they’re speaking a language you can’t understand as the Census taker, and it explains what the Census is in about 20 different languages. Assuming the literacy ability of the person answering the door and that their language is on there, we can pretty much figure out how to get the Census completed with just about anyone, no matter what language they speak.

What is the most rewarding part of your role?
I enjoy helping people understand what the Census is and why it’s important. And there was one particular family I was working with where the mom, her two daughters, and her sister all ended up on the front porch talking to me. Of course, I’ve got my mask on and I’m at a distance. I didn’t mind taking a little extra time because they had so many good questions, especially the kids; one was in middle school, and one was in elementary school. The mother was explaining about how one day they might need a scholarship to college that might be a federally-funded scholarship, and that these answers to these questions could possibly connect to the funding for that.

I guess there’s been some commercials out about if you don’t fill out the Census, someone will come to your door. One of the children asked, “Are you the guy on the commercial?” I said, “I don’t think I was on the commercial, but that’s what they’re talking about. Sure enough, we come to your door if you don’t answer the Census.” So we had a really nice conversation, and the entire family was interested. It was a good example of how some people really do want to learn more about the Census. As soon as they know more, they’re very eager to complete it for the improvement of their family and their community.

What is the most challenging part of your role?
Sometimes you just catch people at a bad time, and they don’t want to be bothered. So it’s a little hard to have a door slammed in your face sometimes or being told to go away before you even get the first word out. But it’s understandable, and I don’t take it personally. Some days you have a lot of those in a row you kind of feel like you’re not getting anywhere but usually the next day is different, and more people agree to complete the Census. Every day counts. Sometimes you get 10 or 12 people to fill it out, sometimes you only get 2.

What is one last message you would like to get out to others about the importance of completing the 2020 Census?
The Census is only every 10 years, which I know a lot of people know. But the significance of that didn’t really dawn on me until recently. If you think about a child that’s 9 years old — which I have a son who’s 9 years old — the next time the Census is taken, they will be an adult. My son will be 19, the next time the Census comes. So it really is not very often. And so whatever data is collected from this Census, affects him and other young children. By the time these numbers are updated again, those children will be adults. They can only get one shot at this to get the numbers right, to get the resources where they need to go for these children to get the programs and services that they need. We’ll take another shot at it 10 years from now, but that’ll affect a whole other generation.

The 2020 Census is ending soon but there is still time to get counted. Visit 2020census.gov to learn more and respond.