The huge number of jobs available for the census is seemingly good news for unemployed workers, for though the work is temporary, the pay is decent (In Minneapolis, the rate starts at $16.50/hour.) As community groups organize like mad to make sure that every single person gets counted, the U.S. Census Bureau slowly but surely has been hiring staff members, both to manage the enormous administrative duties that the census entails, and also to do the difficult task of going door to door, making sure that each person in this country is counted. But a number of factors make hiring people from underrepresented communities difficult.
First of all, there’s the test, which is only offered in Spanish and English. While the test is not extremely difficult, a number of sources say it is loaded with trick questions that make it difficult for non-native speakers. Then there’s the fact that the census is not hiring non-citizens, except in very rare circumstances. Finally, an extensive background check that includes getting fingerprinted deters members of some communities from even applying.
Bill Davnie, Minneapolis local Census Office manager, said that the census was only hiring American citizens, though it is possible to waive that restriction when needed, such as in an area where an ethnic group population lacks enough citizens to hire. He said each crew of door-to-door knockers will be made up of about 18 people and will be hired from the neighborhood that they work. He said the higher the test score that an applicant receives, the higher they are on the hiring list. “We are obligated to go down that list,” he said.
Davnie said that in areas where there is a lower return rate, the Census has an expectation that there will be a greater need for census employees to go door to door. He said that it was possible for a certain neighborhood to not have enough people that pass the test due to language issues and educational issues.
The other hindrance to getting hired, the background check, is an issue both if an applicant is rejected, and because some may not even bother going through the check because they don’t want to address their issues, Davnie said.
As of the second week in March, Davnie’s office has hired around 100 people. Office administrative staff and initial contact people who go to institutions such as group homes and dorms have been hired. Davnie said the non-response teams don’t start until the beginning of May, and so his office won’t be hiring those positions until the first week of April, although some team leaders have been hired.
“I would be very surprised if all crew leaders weren’t from their neighborhoods,” Davnie said, but he knows it will be difficult to staff non-response teams from areas such as some areas by the University populated by many immigrants.
Once census workers are hired, they go through four days of training, Davnie said. They get finger printed, and learn the history of the census and about record keeping. One of the main things that new census workers learn is how to work with people. “We want a positive, constructive team,” Davnie said. “We teach them to be positively persuasive.”
To try to recruit employees to work for the census, Davnie said his office has set up tables at MCTC, the University of Minnesota, and other higher education institutions, as well as in the skyways and at Cub Foods on weekends. They have also put posters around the city, including North Minneapolis and along Franklin Avenue in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood.
“We’ve worked with a variety of community organizations for reruiting and for general outreach,” Davnie said. The bureau has also met with Workforce Centers, conducting testing at their sites. He said the bureau has also reached out to the faith community.
Richard Gerdes, the Assistant Regional Census Manager in Kansas City, said, “It’s really important to have people come from communities that they are coming from.” However, the census doesn’t keep statistics on the ethnic or racial make-up of their employees.
Gerdes said that the bureau has done its best to reach out to different communites, hiring specialists to get the message out, although he did say immigrants can’t be hired, onor anyone who has anything more than a traffic violation on their background check. Gerdes defended the need for a background check, saying: “We don’t want to put a census person out there that’s been a threat to the community.”
Some critics have claimed that not enough resources have been spent to recruit individuals from underrepresented communities. For example, there haven’t been many ads on Latino radio stations.
“We have to look at the country as a whole…” Gerdes said. “As a nation, we have to do the best we can. It’s tough to make everybody happy.” Few resources have been spent on local ads, he said: “It’s really important that we spend the money wisely.”
In Minneapolis, an enormous effort has been launched via the Minneapolis Complete Count Committee (CCC), a committee made up of representatives from government agencies education, business, and religious organizations and the media initiated to increase awareness about the census and motivate residents in the community to respond.
Hannah Garcia, from Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA), who works for the CCC committee, said the Minnesota Center for Neighborhood Organizing (MCNO), a CURA program, was hired by city of Minneapolis to do census outreach. Ten years ago, the city attempted to do outreach itself, and this time they wanted to entrust that responsibility to an organization that already knew how to organize from a grassroots level.
Garcia said that MCNO has been in charge of staffing the CCC committee and has reached out to faith leaders, media outlets, and educators since this summer, with an extra effort made to reach out to hard-to-count communities. Garcia said one of the accomplishments of the CCC committee was in the creation of a neighborhood tool kit which provides information for neighborhood and community groups to get the message out about the census.
While the focus of CCC has been general outreach, Garcia said that they did do a job training session at Central Library, and one with the Hmong Community at New Millennium School.
Garcia wasn’t very optimistic about Census bureau hiring of census workers from underrepresented communities. “It’s hard to say,” she said, “but it feels as if [hiring people from underrepresented communities] is not quite happening, or happening very slowly.” Garcia said the Census was low on their recruiting numbers. “It’s been tough for us,” Garcia said, “particularly in North Minneapolis.” She said some people took the test months ago and still haven’t heard anything. “If people don’t pass criminal background test- they don’t hear back at all. We hear from a lot of people because they don’t hear one way or another.”
The major challenge, according to Garcia, is that the test is only in English and Spanish. “Some in the Somali community have decided not to take the test,” she said. She observed that Somali women who have a lot of connections in the high rises near Cedar and Riverside, feel like they are not eligible.
“People say ‘what’s the point in trying’,” Garcia said. As non-citizens, they are last on the list. The people that do have high test scores don’t have the language skills or the community connection necessary to reach those underrepresented communities, she said.
Plus, “The test is very tricky,” Garcia said. “It’s not a difficult test, but it’s tricky… That’s been challenging even for folks that speak English.” She said her organization has been looking at some of the question on the test, and wondering about some of the questions: “Why is this relevant for immigrant communities and communities of color to get the word out?”
The CCC, along with some other community organizations, has been trying to combat the testing issue by offering trainings to help people to get higher scores. Programs at Brian Coyle, Redeemer, and Shiloh Temple have been offered to help people improve their scores by taking practice tests.
Shiloh Temple has been training people to take thecensus test since October. Shiloh’s Sister Arnetta Kaba-Phillips, who is on the CCC committee, said that several certified teachers collaborated to create a curriculum for the training last fall. An elementary school teacher, two high school teachers, and two retired teachers worked with Kaba-Phillips to design the curriculum. They designed trainings that involved three sessions of 45 minutes each.
Kaba-Phillips said one of the reasons that Shiloh decided to conduct the training was because she was hearing from a lot of people that they didn’t feel comfortable taking the test. “A lot of people don’t like testing,” she said. “They panic, they don’t focus…. They freak out. We wanted to give them an idea about what they can expect.”
In addition to the organized training sessions, of which there have been four, Kaba-Phillips said the temple has also been training people by appointment since October. As of the first week in March, she said the temple had trained 150 people.
Kaba-Phillips said that one of the aspects of the training is to focus on the mapping and the math. “The math is a little tricky,” she said. “You’re thinking they’re asking one thing, but it’s not always clear.” She said members from her community really want the jobs, and Shiloh is doing what they can to help them get them.