What's wrong with this picture? More than 10% of the labor force is jobless. College grads, executives, high school dropouts, and the aging are all desperately looking for work. Yet the Federal government cannot find enough people willing to work for up to $24 an hour for the U.S. Census. The 2010 Census will go ahead, just as it has every ten years since 1790, but the mystery is why, in this economy, so many Census positions are taking so long to fill.
Admittedly, these are part-time temporary jobs. Still, you'd think earning some money would be better than earning no money. But here in Los Angeles the recruiters in front of Starbucks and grocery stores, at farmers' markets and in the mall, get less action than the neighborhood panhandlers. And across the country, a friend who's been looking for work for many months in Connecticut just sent me this report of his interview to become a census worker:
"They're short 200 census takers in Norwalk. When I went to take the test there were only 3 people there - including myself. The test had 28 questions. You needed 10 correct answers to pass. I got 22 because I missed a question and screwed up the sequence of my answers. I should have gotten 26 or 27. (Translation: it's not much of a test.) Where are all these unemployed people?"
A quick search of the Web shows the same paradox playing out in other states.
As of Feb. 1 in the oilfield territory of West Texas, the Census office had less than half the applicants needed to fill hundreds of positions.
In Kansas more than 4,000 census positions were still unfilled at the end of February.
In Buffalo, NY, where 2,000 more workers are needed for the next three months, local news agencies speculate that some potential candidates are reluctant to give up long-term unemployment benefits in order to work part time, while others don't want to undergo the criminal background check.
But what about all the law-abiding citizens who've been out of work so long they no longer get any benefits? What about all the kids just out of school? What about all the retired folks who've lost their savings to Wall Street and are struggling to make ends meet?
Nationwide, the Census will employ about 2.5 million people - about the same number of active duty personnel in the U.S. Army. Although the census form has been reduced to only 10 questions this year, the vital statistics they collect will help determine where political districts are drawn; how federal and state funds should be allocated; where health and transportation services are needed; how public safety strategies should be structured; and so on. The data serves the public interest.
By law, the US Census Bureau can't share the information it collects on individuals with any other government agency, including the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Immigration and Naturalization. Census information is even exempt from the Patriot Act.
Nevertheless, I can't help but wonder if the lies being spread by the Teabagger Movement have so infected the national psyche that paranoia is contributing to the low turnout for paying jobs with the Census.
Clearly, the Right's disinformation campaign about Health Reform and job-creation legislation have persuaded the paranoid fringe to fight one policy after another that could directly benefit them. The very same forces conspired to fight FDR's New Deal and Social Security during the Great Depression, and LBJ's plan for Medicare in 1965.
If it's true that the anti-government delusions have sunk so deeply into the fabric of our society that the unemployed will refuse out of spite to take paying jobs with the government, then we all may be in deeper trouble than the left has yet been able or willing even to contemplate. Let's hope the problem is simply that the unemployed don't realize these jobs are still wide open.
For more information on US Census jobs, call (866) 861-2010 or go to 2010censusjobs.gov.