As They Make Sure Surveys Are Completed, Workers Are . . . Counting Heads on Foot

Article excerpt

Perhaps it wasn't the best time to ask Don Fox about his new job with the U.S. Census Bureau.

Fox had been turned away by a woman with a headache, and ignored at homes with cars in the driveway. The sun was reaching its afternoon peak, and sweat was beginning to bead on Fox's forehead.

He was beginning to sound a bit frustrated. "We walk, that what's we do," said Fox, who joined the legion of census workers who last week began counting people who hadn't already counted themselves.

To do this, Fox and companion James White walked through neighborhoods full of barking dogs, navigated along streets with confusing names and approached homes with sometimes uncooperative residents.

They were among the 2,000 enumerators in Jacksonville who hit the streets, hoping to interview 150,000 Northeast Florida households that did not send back census questionnaires mailed to them this spring.

That's about 35 percent of the homes in Baker, Clay, Duval, Nassau and St. Johns counties. It's a better response than the 41 percent that failed to respond in 1990, but it's still short of the bureau's goal.

"We want to get everybody," Fox said.

That way, the government has the most accurate data to decide where to provide services, he said.

So people such as Fox, a 72-year-old retiree, and White, a 26-year-old recent college graduate, go knocking on doors. They go with Census Bureau IDs on their chests and smiles on their faces.

"You can only play so much golf. You can only do so much fishing," Fox said. "I see this as a way of doing some good, and I enjoy meeting people."

People, yes. Dogs, no, said White, still reeling from an encounter with a pit bull the previous day in the Southside area.

As White approached a yard, an unchained dog stepped around the corner of a house and barked. White backed up, and the dog backed up. White moved forward, and the dog moved forward.

"At that point, I said, 'I'll see you later, doggie. I'll see you some other day when you're asleep,' " White said.

Whether it's barking dogs, or vacant homes, enumerators make a note of the failed visit and schedule a return.

SPARING A MOMENT

Enumerators will spend about 10 weeks and visit homes as many as six times, or until someone responds, said Wayne McGovern, manager in charge of field operations in Jacksonville.

Residents who refuse could eventually face a $100 fine, but only in extreme cases, McGovern said. "There are no Census Bureau police who are going to drag mom and dad away from the dinner table with the kids crying," McGovern said. "We want people to do this voluntarily."

And on Wednesday, the enumerators' luck wasn't all bad.

John Brynildsen, 32, was standing outside his Holiday Hill home as Fox and White approached. Brynildsen said he was pleased to answer their questions, even if they were from the 30-minute long form.

Most are short forms that take three minutes, Fox said.

"It's something that needs to be done," said Brynildsen, who said he moved in April and must have missed delivery of his questionnaire.

A small dog came onto Holiday Hill Circle, where White was walking, and yapped loudly around his ankles. The owner came out and called the dog back, but not before it elicited a startled reaction from White.

"I must exude some kind of dog pheromone, or something," he said.

The pair also landed an interview at the Holiday Hill home of Melanie Castle. …