Economy May Test Census

By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 20, 2009

The faltering U.S. economy is causing concern about the ability of the 2010 census to get a full and accurate count of the U.S. population, according to Census Bureau officials and experts.

The increase in home foreclosures and the rising jobless rate mean more Americans are moving out of their homes and into shelters or other locations where they may be harder for census workers to find.

"The economy really has all kinds of implications for the census," said Frank A. Vitrano, a division chief at the bureau who oversees planning and coordination for the 2010 count. "Every day we're learning new things."

As an example, Vitrano cited reports about growing numbers of people living in cars or in tent cities in California and other places.

"We've got to build that into our operations," Vitrano said, speaking Wednesday at a Brookings Institution forum on the 2010 census.

The issue is of particular concern to Hispanic advocacy groups, which are pushing for an end to undercounts of the Latino and other minority populations.

Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, expressed concern at the forum that the bureau's plans for conducting the 2010 census do not take into account the depth of the current recession and the resulting displacement of minority families hit hard by job losses and foreclosures.

Little more than a year remains until the constitutionally mandated decennial head count. Earlier this month, the Government Accountability Office reported to Congress that the accuracy of the 2010 census remains threatened by computer problems and untested methods that the Census Bureau plans to use for conducting the count.

Robert Goldenkoff, director of strategic issues for the GAO, noted at the Brookings forum that it will cost the Census Bureau about $100 to count each housing unit in 2010, compared with $14, adjusted for inflation, in 1970.

Terri Ann Lowenthal, a consultant for several 2010 census projects, noted that in neighborhoods where as many as one in five homes might be vacant, the Census Bureau may have to spend a great deal of time and money to determine which units are occupied and which have been abandoned.

Lowenthal also expressed concern that financial hardships may make some Americans less likely to cooperate with census workers. "Families are afraid to open the door, because they're not sure if the next knock is the repo man," she said.

One bright side for the Census Bureau amid the bad economic news: The bureau is not having any problem finding temporary workers to help with the 2010 count.

The bureau received more than 1 million applications for the 140,000 available temporary staff positions to perform address canvassing this year, according to bureau spokesman Stephen Buckner.

"With the economy, we're having great success with recruiting," Vitrano said.

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