It's hard to get good census help these days, in a booming high-employment economy. So the U.S. government held a Census 2000 job fair yesterday at the 5th Regiment Armory, looking for hundreds of counters -- enumerators -- to carry out this constitutional requirement.
Jaimar Davenport, 16, took the first test of the day, hoping to land his first job at an hourly wage of $13.75. He and his friend, Wayne Cooper, 17, both city high school students, concentrated hard on the 28 questions involving simple math and logic.
Both teens passed. "The test was kind of easy. I think more people should come and get a job, even if it's only temporary," Jaimar said. He also grasped the substance of the work, adding that the information gathered translates into "better resources to help the community."
As a foot soldier in Census 2000, Jaimar is two centuries removed from the first census, directed by Thomas Jefferson in 1790, but there is a slender connection between him and the federal marshals on horseback who went out to count the population of the young republic's 13 states.
This is what it still comes down to when the world's largest democracy sets out to count every person in the land: old-fashioned knocking on doors, asking how many people dwell here, whether American citizens or not.
In the city, where the response rate to the mailed forms is just 50 percent, the importance of the next phase of the census, head-counting by enumerators, can hardly be overstated, city officials have stated.
City planner Gloria Griffin, who's in charge of the mobilization, says the undercount Baltimore reported in 1990 cost the city $650 million in federal aid over the decade.
By contrast, Baltimore and Howard counties have reported mail-back rates of 72 percent and 76 percent, respectively. About 1,000 enumerators will be sent out to Baltimore households next week, after a three-day training session.
At the armory yesterday, an Army specialist, Stephanie Fitzgerald, recalled lessons learned when she was a door-to-door enumerator in West Baltimore.
"Most are afraid the information will be used against them: the elderly, those on welfare. They definitely like eye contact, and professional attire makes a statement," she said. "You have to assure them that the information won't jeopardize their living status. And no jive or slang."
Griffin assures all doubters that census information is kept confidential and is not shared with other agencies: "No name is on the data and people on social assistance will not be penalized."
The census is a demographic snapshot of the population taken on April 1, 2000, and is used to draw a map of the U.S. House of Representatives. The facts and figures also determine government funding of social programs and help social scientists understand trends in cities and regions.
For example, Baltimore's population is expected to decline from 736,014 in 1990 to about 630,000 in 2000, city officials said.
'I'm perfect for this'
Meanwhile, recruiter Gregory Harris says knocking on rowhouse doors for the census is just about the best fun he's had on a job: "I like being outside because you get to meet people from different backgrounds, every walk of life. I'm perfect for this. If this was a full-time job, they've got their man."
All the smiles, good spirit and high pay for what some census workers call a "useful endeavor" may not overcome the harm done by politicians who have criticized the census. Some fear this could cause a grim irony: "The communities not filling out the forms are the communities who need it the most," Griffin said.
For information about becoming a enumerator, call 888-325-7733.
Contributing writer Emir Salihovic provided information for this article.