D.C. pushes to boost residents' response to Census, get city more federal funds

By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 30, 2009

District officials announced an outreach effort Thursday aimed at improving the city's poor response rate in the Census and securing its claim on billions of federal dollars.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) predicted record participation in the 2010 Census, even though the city has many residents considered "hard to count," such as immigrants, college students, homeless people, singles, renters and the poor. He said every D.C. resident who is not counted costs the city $3,500 in lost money.

About $430 billion in federal funds are distributed to local and state governments every year, based in part on Census Bureau figures. The District's share is about $2.5 billion.

In 2005, the city successfully challenged a Census Bureau estimate of its population. As a result, the bureau revised its estimate upward by 31,500 people, to 582,000, reflecting the largest increase in the District's population in more than half a century. The Fenty administration pegs the population today as 592,000 "and growing."

The District, like most urban areas, usually has a low response rate of people who mail in their census forms without prompting. In the 2000 Census, only 60 percent responded initially, compared with the national average of 67 percent. The rate in Maryland was 69 percent, and in Virginia 72 percent. When people don't send in the forms of their own accord, the Census Bureau hires temporary workers to knock on their doors and encourage them to be counted.

D.C. Council member Michael A. Brown (I-At Large), who has been named council liaison for the census, blamed the District's low rate partly on "myths" about the consequences of being counted.

"Some people think that if they do fill out the form, the government will come after them about parking tickets," Brown said.

D.C. Planning Director Harriet Tregoning said 386 people have been hired to coordinate partnerships with "trusted voices," such as grass-roots organizations, to help promote the census and its importance. D.C. residents are being sought out in every ward to get out the message and help with the count.

"Our most important strategy is to deploy people who know their neighbors and who are known by them," Tregoning said. "We want to make people aware that they can trust the census. It's safe. It's important. It matters to them. It matters to their neighbors. It matters to their family, and it matters to the city."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company