What do US Census Takers Do?

Door-to-Door and Face-to-Face

United States Censjus
GAO Questions Cost of 2020 Census Online Response Plan. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Americans who, for whatever reason, do not complete and return a Census Bureau questionnaire can expect a personal visit from a census taker or "enumerator."

What do the enumerators -- census takers -- have to do? According to Census Bureau Director Kenneth W. Prewitt's April 5, 2000 testimony to the House Subcommittee on the Census, "Each enumerator is given a binder of addresses in that area that includes all those addresses for which we have not received a completed questionnaire.

Because houses without numbers and street name addresses can be difficult to find, enumerators in rural areas also receive maps that have the housing unit locations spotted on them. The enumerator must go to each address in the assignment area to complete the appropriate questionnaire (either short form or long form) for the housing unit and its occupants."

For each address, the enumerator must:

  • Interview a household member at least 15 years of age and completes the assigned questionnaire.

If the unit was occupied by a different household on Census Day, the enumerator completes a questionnaire for the occupants who lived there on Census Day by interviewing a knowledgeable person, such as a neighbor.

If the current occupants were not enumerated elsewhere, the enumerator will also complete a census questionnaire for them for their Census Day address.

If the housing unit was vacant on Census Day, the enumerator completes appropriate housing questions on the questionnaire by interviewing a knowledgeable person, such as a neighbor or apartment house manager.

If the housing unit was demolished or otherwise nonexistent under census definitions, the enumerator completes a questionnaire that provides the reason why the unit should be deleted from the census address list, by interviewing a knowledgeable respondent such as a neighbor or apartment house manager.

What if nobody's home?

Will the census taker just go away? Yes, but he or she will most certainly be back.

The enumerator must make up to six attempts to contact the resident and complete a questionnaire.

If no one is home at an occupied housing unit, the enumerator obtains as much information as possible about how to contact the occupants from a neighbor, building manager, or another source.

The enumerator also leaves a notice at the address that they have visited and provides a telephone number so the occupant can call back.

The enumerator then makes up to two additional personal visits (3 in all) and three telephone attempts at contacting the household before obtaining as much information as possible to complete the questionnaire from a knowledgeable source. Enumerators are instructed to make their callbacks on different days of the week and at different times of day.

The enumerator must maintain a record of callbacks that lists each type of callback made (telephone or personal visit) and the exact date and time it occurred. Enumerators are expected to obtain complete interviews but must obtain at least the status (occupied or vacant) and the number of people living in the unit.

If the enumerator submits a questionnaire that contains this minimal level of data, the crew leader must check the enumerator's record of callbacks for the housing unit to determine that procedures were properly followed.

The crew leader also holds these cases for possible further follow-up to obtain more complete data.


  • Crew leaders meet daily with each enumerator to pick up and check completed work.

    Crew leaders are expected to make sure that the enumerators produce quality work at a rate of 1 to 1.5 completed questionnaires per hour depending on the type of area covered. Crew leaders check each completed questionnaire for completeness and accuracy.

    In order to prevent falsification of the data by enumerators, a percentage of each enumerator's work is verified for accuracy by a re-interview staff. This staff verifies a sample of each enumerator's work and may also verify additional questionnaires from enumerators whose work differs significantly from that of other enumerators working for the same crew leader. An enumerator who is discovered falsifying data is dismissed immediately and all the work must be redone by another enumerator.

    And so it goes until a completed census questionnaire has been completed and turned into the local census office for every housing unit address in America.

    Like all other employees of the Census Bureau, enumerators are subject by law to severe penalties including imprisonment for divulging information outside of the required scope of their job.

    And remember, answering all census questionnaires is required by law