washingtonpost.com
Officials move to raise 2010 Census response rates

By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 16, 2010; B01

The gulf that separates Woodland Terrace in Southeast Washington from Burke Centre in Fairfax County can be measured by income levels as well as unemployment and poverty rates. Over the next few weeks, another telling measurement will be the volume of mail as residents return thousands of census forms being delivered this week.

The two areas, just 25 miles apart, have had starkly different responses to the census in the past. In the 2000 Census, more than five out of six Burke Centre households promptly mailed in their questionnaires. In the census tract where Woodland Terrace is situated, less than half initially responded.

As the 2010 Census lands in 120 million mailboxes this week, officials are making a final push to encourage people to complete the forms, which have been streamlined to 10 questions. They are running ads, setting up booths at community events and dispatching canvassers to talk up the decennial count. With many communities hit hard by the recession and more than $400 billion in federal aid at stake, making sure residents get counted matters more than ever to budget-strapped local officials.

Those who don't fill out the questionnaires are apt to get a personal visit from a census taker, an expensive undertaking that could add $1.5 billion to census costs this year.

The Census Bureau will post daily updates by jurisdiction as the forms come in, hoping to drive an extra effort where responses lag.

Burke Centre, a planned community of 5,800 houses on winding streets named after trees, expects to rank high. Many residents are civil servants or connected to the military. They consider the census a civic responsibility, and most respond unbidden.

"It's the right thing to do," said Lisa McCormick, 35, an electrical engineer who grew up in Burke Centre and recently moved back with her husband and two children. "If you get counted, you help your local government get funding. It's a good thing."

Census officials say they are more worried about neighborhoods considered hard to count, such as Woodland Terrace. The apartment complex that lends its name to the neighborhood comprises more than 400 city-owned units, many in need of painting. About half of the area's residents live below the poverty line, census figures show, and the unemployment rate in that part of the city reached 28.5 percent in November, according to the D.C. Department of Employment Services.

Attitudes toward the census are mixed. Some residents regard it with suspicion; others hope it will generate money to build playgrounds and update the apartment complex's balky plumbing.

"I wish the money could bring me another place," said Pearlie Frager, 52, who sits on the Woodland Terrace resident council. Pointing to rainwater pooling outside her window, she said, "These apartments need to be fixed."

Darrell Gaston, 23, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission member responsible for part of Woodland Terrace, said he would be pleased if half or more of his constituents fill out their census forms. "These are communities that have been distrusting government for a long time when it comes to services or quality-of-life issues," Gaston said of Woodland Terrace and the residential streets around it. "To some people, just asking them to write in their name and birth date, it's critical and private information. They're going to ask, 'What do you want my name for? Who are you?' "

D.C. Council member Michael Brown (I-At Large), the council's census liaison, said myths about the count are widely held in the District, where just 65 percent of residents responded to the 2000 Census. People fear that providing information will bring authorities to their doors over unpaid parking tickets, or for having too many people living in a house, or calls from telemarketers. None of these is the case.

"We have to keep pounding a positive message," Brown said, "and hopefully, people will not run away from the clipboard people, they'll run to them."

When activist Philip Pannell, a temporary census employee, canvasses Ward 8 to talk up the census, he often has to explain what it is.

"This is my first time hearing about it," Lashanna Wilson, 24, said after Pannell gave her a census T-shirt and a rundown on the purpose of the census last week at the Woodland Terrace computer center where she works. Now that she knows, she told Pannell, she probably will send it in.

The 2010 Census logo is prominent on the red shirt and ball cap Pannell wears while explaining to people how much federal money is at stake, money that could be spent improving the community. After his spiel, he gives out T-shirts and reusable grocery bags with Census 2010 written on them.

He was passing them out last week to pedestrians on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in front of a Congress Heights grocery store when employee Larry Hawkins, 51, approached him.

"What's in it for me?" Hawkins replied after Pannell asked him to return his census form. "If I can't get a job or money, I don't sign anything."

Pannell handed him a T-shirt, then told him that the entire community benefits: "You need services, like hospitals. You've got to be counted."

Remy Demery, who operates a beauty parlor on 22nd Street not far from Woodland Terrace, expects that the shaky economy will prompt more census participation.

"Ten years ago, people thought if they could get a job and take care of their family, they'd be all right," said Demery, whose church, Temple of Praise, will be a site where people can go for help with census forms. "These days, we need all the help we can get. There's a sense of urgency to be accounted for in the census."

Fairfax County feels the urgency, too, even though its response rate of 81 percent in 2000 was the highest among Virginia counties. Then, the county employed such tactics as sending out Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts to hang census placards on residential doors. This year, it is focusing its efforts on communities that tend to have lower response rates, mostly immigrant, minority and lower-income areas, said county demographer Anne Cahill.

Burke Centre is typical of the census tracts where a lot of residents quickly mailed in their forms. With a median family income of nearly $126,000, it is neither the wealthiest nor the poorest area in Fairfax, where the unemployment rate in December was 4.6 percent. Many current and former military officers, defense contractors, civil servants and professors from nearby George Mason University make their home there.

"We've got a lot of probably Type A persons who work at the Pentagon or in government," said Elizabeth Braxton, pastor at Burke Presbyterian Church, where a census poster is on the bulletin board alongside notices for community events. "They're professional, responsible, and they get things done."

Burke Centre parents see the census as a tool to get more money for their children's schools, said Kala Quintana, president of the homeowners association.

"We have a lot of engaged parents who are interested in making sure we get every dollar back from the federal government to support the infrastructure and [in making sure] the county is giving us enough," she said.

Census employees set up a booth at Burke Centre's fall festival and spoke to the homeowners association board. Since then, the coming census has been cited in the neighborhood's monthly newsletter, the Burke Centre Conservator.

But the census message is understated, even taken for granted.

A baffled look crosses residents' faces when asked if they intend to return their questionnaires.

"Of course," said a man outside a supermarket, who did not want his name published because he is a military officer. "It's the basis of our Constitution. Part of military training is being part of the nation you support, and the census is one aspect of that. I always do it."

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