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Census takers facing more abuse

This is the scary season for the nation's census takers.

Since they began making follow-up house calls in early May, census takers have encountered verbal abuse and flashes of violence. They have been shot at with pellet guns and hit by baseball bats. They have been confronted with pickaxes, crossbows and hammers.

So far, the Census Bureau has tallied 379 incidents involving assaults or threats on the nation's 635,000 census workers, more than double the 181 recorded during the 2000 census. Weapons were used or threatened in a third of the cases.

Now, with just three weeks to go in the door-knocking phase of the count, the number of census takers has dwindled, and the remaining households are the toughest.

"I came across loads of hostility," said Douglas McDonald, who summoned police in Deltona, Fla., after a tug-of-war with an irate homeowner over a census form.

McDonald, 70, who retired from the Labor Department, said he wasn't prepared for the level of anti-government fervor he encountered.

"There's so much anger and bitterness, with people losing their homes and their jobs," said McDonald, who eventually quit. "They're not too fond of the government. They don't want to talk to you."

Sherri Chesney, 46, said she was cursed and spat at during follow-up visits in Houston. One day, she encountered a woman working in her garden. Chesney showed her census badge, she said, prompting the woman to launch into a tirade: "I don't need the blankety-blank government snooping in my business." Then she threw a metal patio table at Chesney, who escaped injury.

"I was stunned, I really was, that America is so mad at the government," said Chesney, who no longer works for the census. "People don't know what it's like out there. It's scary and dangerous, and it's not worth my life."

Census officials say they do not consider anti-government sentiment more widespread than usual this year. But Fernando Armstrong, the Philadelphia regional census director, said it seems to be more vociferous.

"It's the degree of passion they have," he said. "When they don't want to participate, they really don't want to participate."

Some of the attacks represent random violence, like a robbery at knifepoint , or a carjacking. In some situations, the job turned unexpectedly dangerous, as for the Baltimore crew leader who was fatally shot while sitting in his car or the Wisconsin census taker who knocked on the door of a man who tried to drag her into his apartment.

Chesney, for one, won't be back for another census unless she's offered an office position.

"I want to help my country," she said. "I want us to have funding for schools, and all the things that are involved with the census. But I'm not putting my life at risk."

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