Not in more than a half-century has the United States census been conducted amid such high rates of joblessness. The 1.2 million census-taking jobs may be temporary, but they pay well, and economists say they will provide a significant lift.

The jobs will amount to a $2.3 billion injection into the economy at a critical juncture, a bridge between the moment when many economists believe the private sector will finally stop shedding jobs and when it ultimately begins to add them.

“These are real jobs with good solid hourly pay,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Economy.com.

Zandi added: “It’s a form of stimulus. It’s like infrastructure spending, or WPA in the Depression. It effectively does the same thing. It’s not on the same scale, but it is large enough, and it will make a difference.”

Recruiting is just beginning for the jobs. The Census Bureau began adding temporary offices across the country in the fall and has recently been holding open houses to encourage people to sign up for a half-hour test that is the first step to a job. It has also set up a Web site with information for job-seekers. About 13,000 workers were hired this month.

The peak of the bureau’s hiring, however, will be in late April and early May when about 800,000 people are expected to be on its payroll, most of them as field workers, knocking on doors to follow up with households that did not return census forms mailed in March. The positions vary in length and pay, but the average job is 20 hours a week for six weeks, paying $10 to $25 an hour.

Rebecca Blank, the undersecretary for economic affairs at the Department of Commerce, whose responsibilities include the Census Bureau, was cautious about the ultimate impact on the monthly unemployment rate, because of a variety of complicating factors in how it is calculated.

“My guess is it’s going to be less than one-half of 1 per cent,” Blank said.

Nevertheless, the boost to total employment nationwide, she said, will be significant. And the timing, in some ways, could not be better.

Zandi, along with many other economists, believes the nation will stop shedding jobs in the spring, and by the time these census jobs wind down over the summer, the private sector will be poised to begin adding jobs again.

“When we look back historically, the census will mark the end of the downdraft of employment,” he said.

Census officials across the country, however, sounded a note of caution for those desperate for the temporary jobs. Many may wind up being turned away. In part, that is because of the extraordinary demand during a smaller spate of earlier census hiring.

The bureau hired about 140,000 people this year for its address canvassing campaign, in which workers walked block by block to make sure the government’s address lists and maps were updated.

Lee Ann Morning, office manager of the bureau’s Denver office, said her staff was caught off guard after an open house last December that received some news coverage. Every phone in the office was ringing, and additional staff members were called in to handle the volume. Hundreds of calls rolled over to voicemail, which quickly filled up. -- © 2009 The New York Times News Service

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