By Michael Luo
Next year’s census will not only count people, it will also put money in millions of pockets and potentially create a well-timed economic spark.
Not in more than a half-century has the United States census been conducted amid such high rates of joblessness. The 1.2 million census-taking jobs may be temporary, but they pay well, and economists say they will provide a significant lift.
The jobs will amount to a $2.3 billion injection into the economy at a critical juncture, a bridge between the moment when many economists believe the private sector will finally stop shedding jobs and when it ultimately begins to add them.
“These are real jobs with good solid hourly pay,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Economy.com.
Mr. Zandi added: “It’s a form of stimulus. It’s like infrastructure spending, or W.P.A. in the Depression. It effectively does the same thing. It’s not on the same scale, but it is large enough, and it will make a difference.”
Recruiting is just beginning for the jobs. The Census Bureau began adding temporary offices across the country in the fall and has recently been holding open houses to encourage people to sign up for a half-hour test that is the first step to a job. It has also set up a Web site with information for job seekers. About 13,000 workers were hired this month.
The peak of the bureau’s hiring, however, will be in late April and early May when about 800,000 people are expected to be on its payroll, most of them as field workers, knocking on doors to follow up with households that did not return census forms mailed in March. The positions vary in length and pay, but the average job is 20 hours a week for six weeks, paying $10 to $25 an hour.
Rebecca Blank, the under secretary for economic affairs at the Department of Commerce, whose responsibilities include the Census Bureau, was cautious about the ultimate impact on the monthly unemployment rate, because of a variety of complicating factors in how it is calculated.
“My guess is it’s going to be less than one-half of 1 percent,” Ms. Blank said.
Nevertheless, the boost to total employment nationwide, she said, will be significant. And the timing, in some ways, could not be better.
Mr. Zandi, along with many other economists, believes the nation will stop shedding jobs in the spring, and by the time these census jobs wind down over the summer, the private sector will be poised to begin adding jobs again.
“When we look back historically, the census will mark the end of the downdraft of employment,” he said.
Census officials across the country, however, sounded a note of caution for those desperate for the temporary jobs. Many may wind up being turned away. In part, that is because of the extraordinary demand during a smaller spate of earlier census hiring.
The bureau hired about 140,000 people this year for its address canvassing campaign, in which workers walked block by block to make sure the government’s address lists and maps were updated.
Lee Ann Morning, office manager of the bureau’s Denver office, said her staff was caught off guard after an open house last December that received some news coverage.
Every phone in the office was ringing, and additional staff members were called in to handle the volume. Hundreds of calls rolled over to voicemail, which quickly filled up. Many callers were unable to get through.
“It was that kind of overwhelming response,” Ms. Morning said.
Similar scenes across the country surprised census officials. Besides the volume, the caliber of the applicants was unprecedented.
“We saw certainly college degrees, master’s degrees, Ph.D.’s, doctors, all kinds of people you wouldn’t think would be looking for a temporary part-time position,” Ms. Morning said.
The Census Bureau had planned on recruiting 700,000 applicants by April for address canvassing. It wound up getting 1.2 million by early February, prompting officials to mostly call off recruiting across the country. The deluge left them with databases already bursting with recruits, especially in large metropolitan areas.
“We’re trying not to give the public out there a false sense there’s all these jobs out there,” said Tony Farthing, the bureau’s New York regional director, who is being especially cautious in his area about advertising too widely.
The need varies across the country, depending on geography, the local unemployment rate and other considerations. In many areas, especially rural and urban ones, the bureau still needs to recruit aggressively. One of its top priorities is hiring from the communities where census takers will be working, making sure they are familiar with its nuances and even speak the language.
There is a greater need for workers in areas where the mail-in response rate to the census form has traditionally been lower. So in many areas where there may be the most interest in census jobs, like certain suburbs, the need might be lower.
“The interest will not match perfectly with where you believe the work is going to be,” said Dwight Dean, the Detroit regional director for the bureau.
There is little doubt, however, that jobs will affect those in need. Mina Lopez, 43, of Chandler, Ariz., was laid off in March 2008 from her position as a human resources specialist when Arizona State University slashed its budget.
Ms. Lopez, a single of mother of three who holds two master’s degrees, depleted her savings and was forced to hold garage sales every other week to raise cash.
But she landed a part-time $15-an-hour census position last April, as part of the bureau’s address canvassing campaign. It lasted only five weeks but helped arrest her financial freefall. She landed another part-time census position shortly after that and was eventually promoted to be an assistant manager for administration in the Phoenix office, making $19.25 an hour.
“It’s saved me and given me hope that I’m going to dig out of this hole,” she said.