When the 2020 Census count is finally tallied, states across the nation will receive their proportionate share of government funding for essential social programs and services for the next decade. For three ex-felons, the grassroots work of going door-to-door checking for completed Census forms, provided immediate financial relief and an opportunity to help their community.
David Battle, Robert Madison and Willie Harris, III are three of 170 Census canvass workers hired by Community Build, Inc. (CBI) for temporary work in a final push to ensure all South Los Angeles residents are counted for the 2020 Census. Battle, Madison and Harris are also ex-felons who have served a collective 80 years in prison.
CBI was able to hire Census canvass workers with funding specifically allocated for Census work from the office of Council member Herb Wesson.
Prior to the pandemic, Battle, who served 21 years and six months for armed robbery, had worked installing office cubicle partitions for almost three years. He was doing well and providing for his family, when the pandemic hit and the shelter in place orders were imposed. He had been out of work since March when he heard about CBI’s Census Canvass work from Pastor Anthony O. Williams of 88th Street Temple, where Battle attended church.
“The Census work with Community Build came right on time. I really needed it because at first we were getting some big unemployment checks, but then it went down and it just was just not a livable wage,” Battle said.
Even though employment as a Census canvassing worker was temporary, Battle said he was able to use the $20 per hour wage to catch up on a few bills.
“All good things come to an end, but I’m grateful for the opportunity,” said Battle. “I’ve been through some adversity in my life. I believe that this struggle will prepare me for the next opportunity.”
Robert Madison heard about the Census canvassing work from Derek Hill, outreach specialist at Dad’s Back Academy, a program for fathers reentering society following incarceration. Madison served a 22 year sentence for armed robbery and was released 14 months ago.
Madison said he was eager to find employment. After receiving the Hill’s referral, he applied and was accepted into the program, paired with a canvassing crew and started the same day.
According to Madison, after he explained the importance of completing and submitting the Census form, a majority of the residents he spoke to were respectful, receptive and appreciated the inquiry. He said he received a lot of “thank yous” and “good luck” from over 200 houses he visited in his last week of work.
“It made me feel good that I’m giving back to the community,” said Madison. “If it came up again, I wouldn’t mind doing it.”
Madison said he will continue to look for work now that he Census canvassing assignment is complete. He would like to work with youth in some capacity.
Willie Harris, III learned about CBI’s Census canvassing work through Darlene Burke, founder of Ten Toes In, a support group for women who are involved with an incarcerated or formerly incarcerated men and incarcerated men who are in a relationship with women outside of prison.
After serving a 37 year sentence for murder, Census canvassing was Harris’ first job after being release on May 29. He said he enjoyed the feeling of earning his own funds and being immediately welcomed into the group and put to work.
“I would love to have a permanent job and an apartment,” Harris said.
According the California Department of Corrections, hundreds of men and women with felony convictions who have served their time are released each year. Due to prison overcrowding and Coronavirus outbreaks, hundreds of inmates deemed to be non-violent and unlikely to reoffend are also eligible for early release. The NAACP reported that having a criminal record reduces the likelihood of a job callback or offer by as much as 50 percent.
“We know the greatest predictor of recidivism is poverty,” said Community Build, Inc. President Robert Sausedo. “Everyone – including those with felony convictions – deserves a chance to contribute to their communities through employment that provides a living wage.”
The primary job of the canvass workers is to remind people to fill out the Census form and answer questions about the Census. The workers received a presentation on the impact of an accurate Census count as well as training. From Sept. 16 to Sept. 30, Census canvassing crews were driven to areas where Census form returns were low and given a script, a canvass map, canvass walk sheets, a safety vest, and a canvass report form. Compensation for canvass workers was $20 per hour.
The 2020 Census count was scheduled to continue through October 30, but the count came to an abrupt halt two weeks early on October 15 after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Trump Administration’s request to end the Census count. The Trump administration argued that the head count needed to end immediately so the U.S. Census Bureau would have enough time to calculate the numbers before the congressionally mandated December 31 deadline.
“In the last Census, California lost $650 billion from being undercounted and that undercount isn’t nearly as bad as was before the canvassing started,” said Sausedo.
“With these temporary Census positions, we were able to provide immediate support to South Los Angeles residents through jobs, and through an accurate Census count, we can continue that support in the future. It’s a win-win for everyone”