A citizen army of 635,000 enumerators will hit the streets starting today as the 2010 Census begins the laborious process of making 46 million house calls on people who did not return a questionnaire.
To finish the head count, the temporary troops going door to door will have to cope with critters, actually catch people at home and then win the trust of an increasingly distrustful citizenry.
After a months-long ad blitz encouraging mail-in responses, the battle of persuasion now shifts to a one-on-one endeavor, said Gabriel Sanchez, the regional census director
"It's easy to say, 'The hell with the government' when it comes to mailing in a form, but when it's a real person, it's a different story," Sanchez said.
"That's the message: These people aren't evil bureaucrats from Washington; they are neighborhood people doing a service for our country."
They face a stiff test.
"We are starting with a population that was too busy or didn't want to do it," Sanchez said. "So they are in a sense resisting our efforts and now we have to get them to cooperate. It's a personal challenge for enumerators."
The push is the census version of the Christmas rush for the post office and UPS.
"This is the largest peacetime mobilization. It's the equivalent of getting ready to go to war. It's a big battle and now we need to take the beach," Sanchez said.
"All systems are stressed to the max," he acknowledges. "These are people hired two weeks ago, being trained by people hired three weeks ago, who are being supervised by people hired a month ago.
"And all of them had to undergo background checks, including fingerprinting, to ensure that no criminals come to your home."
Copiers have been humming nationwide as millions of maps were being printed even while the army of new workers attended 33,000 three-day training sessions this week on the procedures and niceties of collecting the data.
In Texas alone, 84,000 enumerators will handle the tally. Most will work 18 to 20 hours a week and make $10 to $25 an hour, depending on the local prevailing wage.
They will work a range of shifts, including evenings and weekends, when people are most likely to be at home. Collectively, they will pile up an estimated 957,000 miles going door to door.
Some people who mailed back forms will be visited if the forms arrived too late to be processed before "follow-up packets" were sent to local census offices, Sanchez said.
Households that didn't receive a form, including those that receive mail at post office boxes, will also be visited. The Census Bureau doesn't mail forms to postal boxes because responses must be associated with a specific location.
It's all part of the $15 billion effort to fulfill the constitutional mandate to count every person living in America (citizen or not). The census is used to determine apportionment of seats in the U.S. House and to distribute $400 billion in federal aid.
For Cary Casey, a Fort Worth native and 32-year Census Bureau employee in the Dallas office, "this is the biggie," the most exciting time of the decade.
"There aren't many jobs in the world," he said, "where in the space of a few months you can see an operation go from nothing to hiring thousands of staff, finding office spaces, training people and then the fieldwork gears up. And then it all stops."
Casey is now an area manager in southwest Louisiana, where enumerators are tracking the migration from hurricane-devastated coastal communities to inland cities like Baton Rouge.
For the most part, the workers will be alone, he said. They'll make as many as six attempts, in person and by phone, to contact a household before seeking out "the most knowledgeable neighbor."
This is Casey's fourth census, and he's noticed a shift in the reception over the decades. People are increasingly wary of Big Brother.
"Mistrust of government is one of the problems," he said. "There is more and more mistrust as the years go by. But the Census Bureau spent more money on outreach [$133 million] this year and it paid off. We equaled or bettered our 2000 response rate," of 72 percent.
"But you can't really blame people; they are rightfully concerned about identity theft. You have to be that way these days," Casey said.
Over the last 20 years, he has noticed another change.
"What's more difficult now is catching people at home. In 1990, you didn't have all these households with two breadwinners working on different schedules. The whole country is more busy."
He says that when workers make contact and identify themselves, the first step is "alleviating the fear."
Once that happens, people are "pretty cooperative."