What Do U.S. Census Takers Do?

Door to Door and Face to Face

United States Censjus
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Americans who, for whatever reason, do not complete and return a Census Bureau questionnaire can expect a personal visit from a census taker, also known as an enumerator.

So, what do the census takers have to do? In April 2000, then-Census Bureau Director Kenneth W. Prewitt explained in a 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."

Census Taker Key Takeaways

  • Census takers, or enumerators, are employees of the U.S. Census Bureau who visit the homes of individuals who do not complete and return a census questionnaire.
  • The census taker will interview any available adult member of the household in order to complete the census questionnaire.
  • The census taker will make at least six attempts to visit the home, contact a resident, and complete the questionnaire.
  • Like all Census Bureau employees, census takers are strictly prohibited by law from divulging any information gathered and may be fined and imprisoned for doing so.

Breakdown of a Census Taker's Job

For each address, the census taker must interview a household member at least 15 years of age and complete 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, also 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 they 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 other source. The enumerator also leaves a notice at the address they have visited and provides a telephone number so the occupant can call back.

The enumerator then makes up to two additional personal visits 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. They 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.

In the end, enumerators are expected to obtain complete interviews but must obtain at least the status (occupied or vacant) of the unit and, if occupied, the number of people living in it.

Crew Leaders

Crew Leaders are members of the U.S. Census Bureau that supervise enumerators. They are in charge of training enumerators and quality assurance operations in the field, among other things, and they meet daily with each enumerator to pick up and check completed work.

If an enumerator submits a questionnaire that contains the minimal level of data outlined above, their crew leader must check their record of callbacks for the housing unit to verify that procedures were properly followed.

Crew leaders also are expected to make sure that the enumerators produce quality work at a rate of one to 1.5 completed questionnaires per hour, depending on the type of area covered.

Following the Rules

In order to prevent the falsification of data by enumerators, a percentage of each enumerator's work is verified for accuracy by a re-interview staff. This staff 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 their work must be redone by another enumerator.

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

Before Census Takers were Used 

In 1790, the first U.S. census was conducted by approximately 650 U.S. Marshals and their assistants. There were no census takers or mail-in census forms. Instead, the U.S. Marshalls—often traveling by foot or horseback—visited every house or building that looked like it might be a residence. Not until the 1880 census were the U.S. Marshals replaced by specially appointed and trained census takers.

Most recently, Census 2010 employed 635,000 census takers. 

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Longley, Robert. "What Do U.S. Census Takers Do?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-do-us-census-takers-do-3320977. Longley, Robert. (2020, August 26). What Do U.S. Census Takers Do? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-do-us-census-takers-do-3320977 Longley, Robert. "What Do U.S. Census Takers Do?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-do-us-census-takers-do-3320977 (accessed June 10, 2023).