Today Counts: Census Encourages Participation With Fanfare


WASHINGTON (March 31, 2010)—National Census Day is Thursday—the federal government's reminder to get those census forms in post haste and save money.

To promote the day and its message, the U.S Census Bureau and its community partners will sponsor a slew of events across the nation to "empower communities" and remind residents that $400 billion in federal assistance is at stake.

"This is the push," said Census Bureau spokeswoman Sylvia Ballinger. "We use this day to rally people, encourage and remind them to fill out the 2010 census form" so that someone won't have to show up and knock on their doors after May 1.

Those census takers will cost a pretty penny.

To send back a completed form takes 10 minutes and costs a mere 42 cents. But it costs taxpayers $25 per person to send a census taker door-to-door to collect the same information, according to the Census Bureau.

Every 1 percentage point increase in mail-back rates saves taxpayers $85 million in follow-up costs.

To follow up on those who fail to respond costs an estimated $2.74 billion, which is the largest portion of the projected $14.7 billion needed to operate the 2010 census.

To keep follow-up costs down and spread census awareness to "Hard to Count" areas, the Census Bureau spent $62.7 million on television, $18.1 million on radio, and $21.1 million on print ads.

But critics say census publicity is unnecessary.

"The census happens every 10 years," said Muir Boda, communications director of the Libertarian Party of Maryland. "It's another extreme waste of taxpayer money to promote something we know is already going to happen."

Although Maryland continues to surpass the national participation rate, about half the state still needs to answer the 10-question survey as of Wednesday.

Census Bureau and Maryland officials expect a wave of forms to return after April 1 because there is usually an uptick from residents waiting until Census Day to send back their forms, said Jane Traynham, manager of the Maryland State Data Center.

Traynham predicted there will be a big effort from the counties to encourage communities with low response rates after the first week of April.

That's because the count counts: A community's population count will determine the area's legislative and congressional representation and serves as a major factor in the allocation of federal funds to jurisdictions.

Census numbers are also used in other ways.

For example, the Census Bureau produces about 100 surveys a year based on census data; companies use housing and income figures to locate ideal consumers; and non-profit organizations look at the data to determine important statistics in their communities when applying for grants.

While census takers battle low response rates in rural and urban communities, they will also have to deal with suspicious residents who consider census questions intrusive and unconstitutional.

"They are asking questions that are private. And oftentimes (the government) uses the information for purposes that it's not intended for," Boda said. "Race and ethnicity are irrelevant and information the government doesn't need."

The only necessary question, Boda said, is the one that pertains to how many people are living in the household.

The Census Bureau said it plans to follow up several times if questions are left unanswered or an occupied household fails to respond. It's important that every person living in your household is counted as of April 1, said Ballinger. "It's not too late."

Capital News Service contributed to this report.

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