March 20, 2009
Census jobs offer a timely boost for the sagging U.S. economy
The 2010 U.S. census may provide an extra kick to the economy, just as the effects of President Obama's $787 billion stimulus plan start to take hold.
The census will put more than 1.4 million people on the federal payroll over the next year, making it the largest peacetime government jobs program ever, according to the Census Bureau. The first 140,000 will start work in April. Most of the rest will be hired early in 2010.
The jobs, though temporary, may ease some of the pain in a labor market where almost 3 million have been put out of work in the past five months. The Census Bureau will spend about half its $14 billion budget for the 2010 head count on personnel, including jobs that pay $10 to $25 an hour and last several weeks to several months.
"From a timing standpoint, you couldn't do better," said Christopher Low, chief economist at FTN Financial in New York. "You're adding workers at a time when we need anything we can get to offset the weakness in payrolls."
The search for census takers before the last head count, in 2000, strained a tight job market. That's hardly a problem this time around, with unemployment at a 25-year high and economists forecasting the rate will average 9 percent next year.
Already the Census Bureau has more than 900,000 applicants for the jobs to be filled in April, or more than six applications for every opening.
"This is probably the most successful recruiting we've had in the last four censuses," said Marilia Matos, the Census Bureau's associate director for field operations. "Many people are looking for work."
The widespread job losses mean applicants are more highly qualified than ever, said James Christy, the Census Bureau's Los Angeles regional director. From college students to bankers, lawyers and former corporate executives, "we're just seeing a much more capable group," he said. "This is my third census, and so far it's been the best crop of people we've ever put in the field."
The workers being hired now will be sent out beginning April 6 to double-check addresses around the country.
Because the work is erratic, part time and not always much fun, turnover is high even when jobs are scarce. Workers have to go door to door, sometimes in dodgy neighborhoods, asking questions some people don't want to answer.
"Most people think they can do it, but it's not that easy," Matos said.
In 1990, when unemployment was 5.6 percent, turnover for head-counters during the year was 100 percent.
This year, the Census Bureau is planning for a 30 percent turnover. To ensure it has a large enough pool to draw on, the bureau will interview more than 3 million people.
Finding them has been easy. "When we started our recruiting push we were hit by waves and waves of applications," said Christy. "We are one of the few silver linings in the economy."
The U.S. Constitution mandates "an enumeration" of the population every 10 years. The first census was taken in 1790. Federal marshals went door to door in the 13 states, plus the districts of Maine, Vermont, Kentucky and Tennessee, counting 3.9 million people over an 18-month period at a cost of $44,000.
The results are used to apportion the 435 seats in the U.S. House and in many state legislatures, and in population-based formulas for distributing federal, state, and local aid money.
The biggest economic impact from the census will come after the first of next year. Census forms will go out in mid-March 2010, and most of the new workers will be sent out in April and May to track down those who don't respond.
The boost to the economy will be short-lived, judging from hiring patterns in 2000. Government hiring that year rose that spring, then fell as the temporary work ended.
"We know it's a very temporary jobs program, and we can adjust our forecasts," said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial in Chicago. "But it will give some leverage to the economy."
Most forecasters say growth should be just starting to pick up about the time most of the new census workers get their paychecks.
"It'll be a much-needed sort of stimulus to the economy, one of those factors that will help the economy look a little better about the time it's bottoming out," said Swonk.
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