By DIANA NGUYEN
WASHINGTON (March 27, 2010)—There are a number of identifiers that can distinguish the towns of Bladensburg from Chevy Chase—racial makeup, income and poverty levels—but none more timely than their census mail-back rates.
Chevy Chase in Montgomery County is just 11 miles away from Bladensburg in Prince George's County, but in 2000, 86 percent of its residents mailed back their census forms, far more than Bladensburg's 54 percent.
With the arrival of Census Day on April 1 and $400 billion in federal assistance up for grabs, officials in all areas, even those with high-response rates, are rallying residents to get every dime possible for their communities.
Officials have attended town hall and senior citizen events, thrown kick-off parties and written newsletters, all to broadcast the importance of the census, said Bladensburg Councilman Cris Mendoza.
A census representative visits the Bladensburg Community Center every Tuesday and Thursday to explain the process and help residents fill out the census. Free brochures, hats and pencils are distributed among interested residents. Census-branded giveaways help familiarize residents with the process.
But on Thursday, no one was interested, said Michael Phillips, 29, a community center employee.
A 27-year resident, Phillips said residents probably overlook the census because they don't see any obvious advantages from filling out the survey.
"A lot of the residents might feel as though nothing happens," Phillips said. "There's no change in the community."
But the census can help provide the most fundamental services.
Census numbers determine how much federal funding is allocated to the states for public services, including hospitals, schools, and roads. Population data also affects legislative and congressional district representation.
For example, through population shifts found in the 2000 census, Legislative District 47 moved out of Baltimore City and into parts of Prince George's County.
Residents are sometimes not merely uninterested, but downright suspicious of the census.
Almost 71 percent of Bladensburg residents are black, according to the 2000 census. About 13 percent are Hispanic or Latino.
A study recently found that young black men, 18 to 25 years old, try to avoid the government, Mendoza said. There is distrust.
And undocumented immigrants have told Mendoza that they are scared that the census will be used to deport them.
Being from the Latino community, Mendoza said, "I hear it every day."
As a result, Mendoza met with the Maryland Attorney General's office to discuss his constituents' concerns.
"I was assured by the Attorney General's office, themselves, that census information would not be used by the department" to deport or penalize undocumented immigrants, Mendoza said.
Though apprehension is less of an issue in Chevy Chase, full participation is every bit as important as it is in Bladensburg. Chevy Chase Mayor Kathy Strom and council members have written several articles on the census and the importance of prompt response.
The Rock Creek Forest Elementary school children have been instructed to remind their parents to fill out their forms with their free census stickers and giveaways.
"We are fortunate to have a very involved group of residents in Chevy Chase, so it is not surprising that the census response rate would be high," said Strom.
Chevy Chase's 2000 participation rate is among the highest in the state.
Many of the residents work for either the state or federal government, and so consider it a civic duty.
Chevy Chase stay-at-home-mom, Julia Small, 50, has not filled out the form yet but said it's sitting on her to-do pile.
"People here are civic-mind, well-educated and know they're obligated to do it," Small said. "It's part of their responsibility as a citizen."
Amanda Waugh, 39, a graduate student, sent the census questionnaire back immediately after she received it in the mail.
"I know how important it is," Waugh said. "It's a simple, helpful tool to help serve the citizens. If you don't participate then your communities aren't counted."
While the Chevy Chase area has a high census return rate, even for high-participation Montgomery County, not all communities there follow its trend.
For example, only 29 percent of residents in rural Barnesville responded to the 2000 census.
There is a high correlation between areas with lower response rates, like in rural and urban communities, with "Hard to Count" areas, according to the Census Bureau.
Hard to Count areas are identified as places where questionnaires cannot be easily delivered, enumerators cannot get direct access to a household, there is a high-density population of non-English speaking residents or there are high concentrations of those living under the poverty level.
As of Friday, Calvert County, with 36 percent, is leading other jurisdictions in participation rates, according to the Census Bureau participation rate tracker, which is updated daily.
Only 20 percent of residents in Worcester County have responded to the census, the lowest in the state. In 2000, Ocean City, a popular summer vacation spot in Worcester, had a 10 percent mail-back rate, also the lowest in the state.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.