Before Friday morning’s jobs report, analysts had been expecting another healthy month for the labor market — projecting that employers added 185,000 jobs to their payrolls in May. But the report turned out to be a flop, coming in at only 75,000 jobs.
Part of the reason for the rosy forecast: Around this time every ten years, the federal government brings on hundreds of thousands of temporary workers to conduct the decennial Census. In May 2009, the Census Bureau had 69,000 temporary workers on its payroll in the early stages of its ramp-up to a total of 564,000 workers a year later.
Last month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Census Bureau had only 2,000 temporary workers on staff, in a potentially troubling indicator of the agency’s level of readiness for carrying out the Constitutionally-required enumeration.
When asked about the low numbers, the Census Bureau said that it had reduced the number of people needed early in the process. In 2009, it hired 146,000 people to walk streets, confirming the accuracy of addresses. This year, it’s using aerial imagery and administrative records to verify addresses, so it will only need between 40,000 and 60,000 canvassers from August to October.
“We’re on track to meeting this goal,” Census spokesperson Michael Cook told CNN Business in an emailed statement.
Later in the process, the Census plans to hire nearly 500,000 workers overall, to complete the count.
The 2020 Census has for several years been plagued with questions about its preparations, given funding shortfalls, the adoption of new and sometimes untested IT systems, and litigation over the addition of a question about citizenship that was rushed to the Supreme Court in order to get the dispute resolved before questionnaires are due at the printer in July.
Hiring the number of temporary staff needed to track down hard-to-find residents and ask them about their lives has been an increasingly expensive proposition. According to the Government Accountability Office, the cost of reaching each household increased from $16 in 1970 to $92 in 2010, adjusted for inflation, while the response rate for mailed questionnaires has declined.
This year, for the first time, the Census is allowing people to respond online, which will require fewer people going door to door. The Bureau is also relying heavily on partnerships with local community groups to motivate people to respond, director Steven Dillingham told a House committee in April.
But that’s still a lot of people.
And it was already going to be a challenge for the Census Bureau to bring on half a million workers this year.
Last time, in 2009 and 2010, Americans were desperate for jobs. Ten years later, there are only about a third as many unemployed workers — 5.8 million as of last count — and industries from trucking to fast food are saying they can’t find staff.
To attract recruits, the Census Bureau is paying competitive wages — between $13.50 and $30 an hour depending on the market — and encouraging people to work for the Census as a side job on nights and weekends. In mid-April, the agency reported it had processed 264,000 applications for its first batch of hires, significantly exceeding its recruiting goal.
At some point, though, those people aren’t showing up in the jobs numbers — which may mean the boost remains for future months.
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the Census director's surname.