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Census Taps Stimulus Funds to Boost Participation

By Ed O'Keefe

By Ed O'Keefe and Steve Vogel

Amid fears that millions of people may not be counted during next year’s census, the Census Bureau will devote $250 million of its $1 billion in stimulus funding to encourage greater participation in the decennial count among hard-to-count populations, which is likely to include families displaced by the home foreclosure crisis.

Americans will be hard-pressed to miss the Census' advertising efforts next year, as the bureau plans to spend at least $145 million on advertising across traditional and social media, with approximately $70 million devoted exclusively to Asian, Black or Hispanic outlets.

“A year from now, the populace will have seen and heard more ads in national and local media than in any prior census,” Census Bureau acting director Thomas L. Mesenbourg told a House panel today.

The agency will also hire 2,000 additional temporary employees by the end of June to coordinate efforts with more than 10,000 local organizations and corporations to help encourage greater participation. Companies including General Mills and Target and groups like the NAACP will encourage their customers and members to fill out census forms next year.

All of this is necessary to help boost participation levels among the nation's under-counted groups, mostly ethnic minorities in economically-depressed areas. How the bureau decides to advertise could prove crucial to next year’s count, said Stacey Cumberbach, New York City’s census coordinator.

“While the Census is a federal responsibility, there must be earlier and ongoing communication and accountability to local governments and communities,” she said at today’s hearing, noting that 55 percent of New York residents responded to the 2000 Census questionnaires, compared to 66 percent nationally.

But any attempt to at coordination with local governments may be impacted by their tight budgets, said Robert Goldenkoff with the Government Accountability Office, who also noted that the bureau could face resistance because of anti-illegal immigration sentiments and general fear or distrust of government agencies since 9/11.

At a forum last week sponsored by the Brookings Institution, Census officials and other experts also warned that increases in foreclosure and joblessness would make it harder to accurately count the population during the 2010 census because more Americans are moving out of their homes and into shelters or other locations where they may be more difficult for census workers to find.

Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said minority populations are more likely to be affected because they are being hit harder by job losses and foreclosures. "Another undercount of the Latino community, of which there has been in every single census, simply represents a failed census," Vargas said.

Vargas said it is particularly difficult to count those who are in the country illegally. "Imagine the challenge we have to convince a population of immigrants who are here in undocumented fashion that they should fill out a form, write other names down of everybody who lives in their family, when they were born, their genders, if they’re Hispanic, their race, and then send it over to the federal government, and trust us, it’s safe, we’re not going to share it with anybody else,” Vargas said.

Research done by the Census Bureau has shown that Hispanics “believe answers can be used against them,” according to Frank A. Vitrano, a division chief at the bureau who oversees planning and coordination for the 2010 count. Hispanics also tend to be overrepresented among groups that know little or nothing about the census and its purposes, he said.

Census Bureau data cited by the GAO's Goldenkoff at last week's Brookings forum shows that while 77.5 percent of whites returned their census forms without need for follow-up during the last census, only 59.7 percent of blacks and 64.5 percent of Hispanics and 69.9 percent of Asians did so.

“Now, this doesn't mean that the different groups were entirely missed by the census. . .” Goldenkoff said. "But the point is closing this gap represents an opportunity to increase the accuracy of the census because data collected by an enumerator, the Bureau has found, is less accurate than a self-completed questionnaire."

NALEO will also partner with the Census to raise awareness and Vargas said he hopes to make next year’s Census Day "a community-wide event.” His organization was considering options such as creating special television programming in conjunction with Spanish-language networks in which viewers would fill out census forms together.

By Ed O'Keefe  | March 23, 2009; 3:05 PM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments, Congress, Oversight  
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