When Gordon Green Jr. was a student at Surrattsville High School in Clinton, he was, by his admission, "a terrible student."
He was admitted to the University of Maryland, but only after taking remedial English and social studies classes in the summer. He barely survived his first year, but managed eventually to graduate with a major in economics.
Later, when he began his graduate work at George Washington University, Green realized that with a job and a family, he would have little time to study. So he devised a 10-step method to turn himself around as a student.
The idea worked, and Green earned a PhD in economics. Now he is in charge of supervising the Census Bureau's politically sensitive estimates on poverty -- and the author of a new paperback published by Lyle Stuart Inc., "Getting Straight A's."
The son and grandson of federal employes, Green grew up in the Maryland suburbs, not far from the Census Bureau's massive concrete headquarters in Suitland.
After getting his undergraduate degree, he took a job as an entry-level government statistician. "What a shocker!" he recalled in his book. "I went from the delusions of grandeur one experiences as a student in economics to the reality of being a clerk working in a 'bullpen' of other clerks." After several years at Census and the Labor Department, he went to work for four years at the Labor Department working on consumer spending surveys, he joined Census' income and poverty branch. It was then that he decided to go back to school.
Now, as assistant chief of the population division for socioeconomic statistics, he rides herd over some of the bureau's most sensitive and widely followed studies: the annual estimates of the number of Americans below the poverty line, the median family income, after-tax income, discretionary income, child-support and alimony collections, and noncash income.
When the poverty report is released each year, Green moves into the Commerce Department's press room downtown to explain it to reporters. He sticks close to the facts and the trend lines and uses simple language to describe difficult statistical and economic concepts. He also manages to deftly dodge reporters' verbal bullets, designed to get him to place the blame for negative economic developments or sing praises for the favorable ones.
Aside from the decennial census, the agency's basic source is the monthly Current Population Survey, which sends interviewers to 60,000 households across the nation.
Raw employment figures are turned over tothe Labor Department, which analyzes them and then issues its monthly unemployment report. Census then uses the figures on income and benefits for its reports.
"In March each year," Green explained, "we collect extra data about income, sources of income and work experience that people had in the preceding year, plus family characteristics and things like that." In other months, the bureau asks additional questions about such things as fertility, school enrollment, child support and alimony, and then prepares reports on them. The surveys have been the government's basic source of information on income since 1947, and on poverty since 1959.
Although Green was trained as an economist and statistician, he said he has picked up a lot about demography from other experts in the bureau. He has also accompanied interviewers, and learned more about the computers that enable the Census Bureau to perform as much work as it does at the agency's computer school.
Besides analyzing figures and reviewing reports for errors in method or interpretation, Green helps to plan new ways of analyzing income, identify new questions that need answering and work out practical ways of answering them.
"No one person is responsible for new ideas and methods; we work together as a team," he said.
For instance, the bureau wanted to find out how much money citizens had left for "discretionary" or "luxury" spending after they had spent what they needed to live reasonably comfortably. With Fabian Linden of the Conference Board, a business analysis group in New York, Green worked out a basic concept: a "comfortable" level of living for a household would equal up to 130 percent of the average amount spent by all households of the same size and age.
Then Green worked with John Coder, chief of the Census Bureau's income branch, to determine how to obtain and calculate the necessary figures from available sources.
"Now we are working on finding out more about noncash income like employer contributions for pension and health plans, that go to the nonpoor as well as the poor." The agency, he added, is also trying to find out more about wealth -- "who has it and in what form.
"On wealth we have only scattered information," he explained. "If we're going to get a good measure of economic well-being, we'll need to look at all this all up and down the income scale."
As for his secret of straight A's, Green boils it down to this:
"Never miss a class. Sit up front so you won't be distracted and can hear well. Always, but always, do your assignments before you go to class so you'll know exactly what the instructor is talking about. Take extensive lecture notes and then rewrite them before the next class -- it's a better way to absorb them and you'll actually learn the material while rewriting.
"When you take an exam, read all the questions first and jot down key points for the answer. Then answer the easiest question first. If you get hung up on a later question, at least you will have completed part of the test. And answering the easiest first builds confidence and lets your mind think about the harder question on a back burner while you are answering the easier one."
Does the method work? Green points to the success that children of his friends have had by using it, and his experience in graduate school, when he said he received an A on every test, term paper and course he completed.