Census project adds to the job picture when it counts

When March employment figures are released Friday by the Department of Labor, analysts are expecting to see the biggest U.S. job gains in more than two years.

But perhaps half the 200,000 or so positions expected to be added to payrolls may be the byproduct of a government effort that has turned into a fortuitous job generator: the U.S. census.

The constitutionally mandated nationwide head count arrives this year at a crucial time -- after the start of the country’s economic recovery, but before private-sector employers have created many jobs. That’s a stroke of luck for the Obama administration, which has been criticized for failing to revive the labor market. And it’s a windfall for the 700,000 temporary employees the census expects to hire, although most of the jobs will last only two to six weeks.

This year’s census isn’t just about counting heads, it’s helping create jobs in an economy that needs them badly.

“It’s a timely thing to be kicking in right now,” said Brian Bethune, chief U.S. financial economist for IHS Global Insight. “It’s going to be a big help to bring people to the point where employment starts to pick up.”

The census hiring, which is expected to accelerate in May and June as the survey puts enumerators to work tracking down people who haven’t mailed back their forms, is expected to boost Friday’s national employment figures by 50,000 to 125,000 jobs. That’s a respectable number, considering the U.S. economy has experienced an almost unbroken string of monthly job losses since December 2007. Nearly 15 million Americans were unemployed in February, and the national unemployment rate was 9.7%.

In April 2000, the last time the department conducted the massive counting operation, the U.S. economy was booming. Census hiring helped bring the country’s unemployment rate to a 30-year low. Back then, the bureau launched a substantial recruitment drive touting its $14-an-hour pay rates to draw workers.

No more. Census officials said recruitment phone lines have been buzzing with applicants requesting interviews.

Los Angeles resident Christina Coffey snagged a census job after being out of work two years. On Tuesday night, the 28-year-old UC Berkeley graduate stood in the cold in a Dodger Stadium parking lot, where 1,500 newly minted enumerators gathered to pick up materials to count area homeless residents.

“To have a current and real paycheck with a 1099 and everything,” Coffey said, shivering in a white census T-shirt over black slacks. “It’s beautiful.”

She and others are earning $17.90 an hour to poke around RVs, cars, tents, boxes and bushes in the middle of the night searching for transients. But despite the cold and grueling hours, many were grateful to be gainfully employed. Some sang and danced in the parking lot while waiting for their tools: flashlights, hats and orange vests marked with “Census Bureau” in reflective yellow. Others tossed around tennis balls and Frisbees while they waited for their yellow assignment envelopes.

“A little extra money is never a bad thing in a down economy,” said David Brown, a 67-year-old Silver Lake landlord who said his cash flow has dropped 25% because he’s had to lower his rents to attract tenants.

Michael Magno, a 28-year-old Cal State Los Angeles business student who had been supporting himself with sporadic $12-an-hour shifts at his girlfriend’s bakery, said the census job would really help.

“I don’t really have a job and I could use the paycheck,” he said.

Despite the exuberance of the enumerators, some observers worry that the census hiring will do little but temporarily mask ongoing weakness in the labor market. Some analysts said it’s unlikely that other parts of the economy would begin generating significant numbers of new jobs to take up the slack by the time census hiring winds down. And the stimulus generated by all those new paychecks will be modest.

“It’s helpful, it’s in the right direction, but the amount of income being created is small compared to the overall size of a $14-trillion economy,” said Dana Johnson, a chief economist with Comerica Bank.

Still, something is better than nothing, said David Wyss, chief economist at Standard & Poor’s.

“We’d rather they were real jobs as opposed to temporary jobs,” he said. “But $10 an hour beats zero dollars an hour.”

Michael Steel, the spokesman for House Republican Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio, was harsher in his criticism.

“The U.S. economy has lost more than 3 million jobs since President Obama signed the trillion-dollar ‘stimulus’ into law amid promises it would create jobs ‘immediately,’ ” he said. “Everyone understands that temporary census hiring may inflate the statistics released on Friday, but the American people will rightly continue to ask, ‘Where are the jobs?’ ”

The government is spending $14.8 billion on the latest census to count the population, Census Bureau spokeswoman Shelly Lowe said. Training has begun across the country, but most enumerators will begin hitting the streets in early May to conduct head counts.

The census will add jobs in areas that typically lag behind the rest of the country in employment, said Maurice Emsellem, policy co-director at the National Employment Law Project. That’s because the government hires local people to count their neighbors, which means rural and minority communities will get an employment boost.

“These are hard-hit communities where any employment is positive employment at this point,” he said.

That includes counting the homeless in hard-scrabble urban areas, the task that brought people to the Dodger Stadium parking lot. Some, like David Wallace, are homeless themselves.

He’s been living at a downtown shelter since January 2009, and was on the streets before that, so he knows some of the rootless people that the census will be trying to count. He was thrilled to get a census paycheck for his shift as a “cultural facilitator,” helping enumerators approach the homeless and gain their cooperation.

Wallace, a 48-year-old bearded man dressed neatly in a denim jacket and jeans, is trying to get his life together. He hopes that by the next census he’ll be counted as an apartment dweller rather than a homeless man.

“This money, I’m saving it for my apartment when I move out of L.A. Mission,” he said. “This is my first money for when the rubber meets the road.”