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Counting On A Shorter Form To Improve Census Tally

By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 24, 2009

The first of 198 million Census forms are rolling off the printing presses. Hundreds of thousands of Census workers have eyeballed virtually every domicile in the land to make sure the agency's address list is correct. Training centers are being opened, as are call centers to clear up any confusion over the questionnaire.

Six months from the start of the national head count, the new director of the Census Bureau said Wednesday that the agency is hoping to boost the percentage of people who return the forms mailed to them as part of the decennial tally.

Robert M. Groves, a University of Michigan statistician who was confirmed as director in July, said in a news conference that the 10 questions about each household member make up one of the shortest questionnaires in Census history. The hope is that it will be less of a burden to harried households, resulting in more responses.

Every 1 percent of forms not returned costs taxpayers "scores of millions" to send out Census workers to find people and count them, Groves said. "If the American people are worried about the deficit, here's something they can do."

Historically, a lot of Americans haven't bothered. In the District, for instance, just 60 percent returned their questionnaires for the 2000 Census on time. Compared with states, only Alaska, South Carolina and Puerto Rico had lower rates. The response rate was 69 percent in Maryland and 72 percent in Virginia, a figure surpassed only by the states of the Great Plains.

In testimony before Congress on Tuesday, Groves said he fears that the count will be impaired by the recession and controversy over immigration. He said it might be harder to find some residents because there have been so many foreclosures and subsequent homelessness.

Noorvik, Alaska, an Inuit village of about 600 people, will be the first place in the nation to get the Census forms. Residents of the Gulf Coast, many of whom were displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, will have their forms hand-delivered.

The Census Bureau plans to collaborate with as many as 100,000 community groups, some as small as a neighborhood block committee, to help get out the word that filling out the Census forms is vital.

One voice will not be ACORN, the controversial community organizing group. The Census Bureau severed its ties to the group earlier this month, after regional offices complained that other groups hesitated to work with it. ACORN has been accused of voter fraud, and two conservative activists recently released videos in which they posed as a prostitute and her pimp getting housing advice at local ACORN offices.

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