ALBANY — In July, I was sworn in as a federal Narfu hunter. NRFU (Non-Responsive Follow-Up) is how the U.S. Census Bureau describes those Americans — roughly 35% of the population — who have not returned their 2020 Census questionnaires. My job is to track them down.
I raised my right hand and took the oath as a census enumerator, swearing to uphold the Constitution, including Article 1, Section 2, which calls for counting "the whole Number" of people in the United States every 10 years. Then I completed 12 hours of online training, with actors posing as people I might encounter. One guy came to the door with a gun. Another asked, "Why should I care about the census?"
Actually, all of us should care. The count is the basis for divvying up political spoils, including federal funds for highways, schools and housing. It decides the number of representatives your state sends to Washington. People left out of the census get ignored.
Narfu hunting is strenuous and tricky. I imagined working an eight-hour day, at $20 an hour, but I can seldom do more than six. I am assigned about 50 houses a day, but rarely reach that many, as I search for missing buildings and tenants who moved out months ago. I bring along packages of peanut M&M's, rewarding myself two at time after successful interviews and a whole handful when things don't go so well.
I thought the job would be a snap for a lifelong reporter who has worked and traveled around the world. Approaching strangers and asking for their date of birth, race and national origins? Nothing to it. I hadn't reckoned on all the animosity, ignorance and fear out there, or the awkwardness of talking to people through a mask.
Doorbells themselves are a problem. These days, friends use cellphones to call from the driveway and say they have arrived. A ring at the front door spells trouble. Many of the houses I visit have holes in the door frames where doorbells used to exist or tacked-up notes saying, "Bell not working."
Even when a doorbell works and I can hear people inside, often no one answers. Enumerators are not allowed to peek in windows or enter private property, but the etiquette sometimes gets murky. If I see a unit off the main house and a side door with a doorbell, do I walk through a gate to get to the door?
In this case, I was two steps in when a Doberman came racing around the back of the house with teeth bared. Dog bites are the second leading cause of injury to census workers, after falls, but we can't carry Mace or pepper spray. All I had was my nylon briefcase marked CENSUS in big block letters. I held it out and backed away slowly, crooning, "Noooo, noooo," until I got to the gate and slammed it between me and Cujo. Then I headed back to my car for a load of M&M's.
I have provoked my own share of fear. I showed my ID to a young man who said he had to get his mother and quickly shut the door. I heard rustling and whispering and finally a woman cautiously reopened the door. Seeing my ID, she yelled into the house, "You dummy! It's the Census Bureau, not the FBI."
Sometimes, people invite me inside, mask and all, for a drink of water or to use the toilet. They tell me where I can get a ribbon wreath for my front door or how to cut back zebra grass in the fall so it grows back fuller. Other people driving by and seeing my census briefcase honk or wave. "Thanks for doing what you are doing!" they yell, as I stand staring at a weed-filled lot where there used to be a building with people in it.
Census workers are instructed to avoid talking about politics and not to wear clothing with writing on it. We are equally bland in the face of NRA decals and pro-choice stickers, although I do enjoy funny messages on doormats, like the one that said, "Hide Packages from My Husband." I no longer believe the ones that say, "Welcome," but I know I am not the only census worker who does an internal fist pump whenever I secure an interview with an immigrant "yearning to breathe free," as it says on the Statue of Liberty.
Census workers know that every NRFU successfully concluded reduces by a little bit the undercount this White House seems intent on forcing in 2020. The Supreme Court blocked the census from asking whether people are U.S. citizens, but now the bureau wants to stop the head count on Sept. 30, a month earlier than scheduled. The census got off to a late start because of coronavirus shutdowns, and when it concludes is a question before the courts. The administration says that stopping early is merely a matter of meeting deadlines, but to us Narfu hunters, it feels like sabotage.
It also feels like a warning. Come November, ballots instead of census forms could go uncounted. Let us all do what we can to make sure they get the numbers right then, too.
Armao is a journalism professor at the University at Albany. This piece was written for The Washington Post.