As census nears, officials make final appeal in diverse settings

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett, center, encourages Hispanic participation at a rally.
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett, center, encourages Hispanic participation at a rally. (Ricky Carioti/the Washington Post)
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By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 28, 2010

Like many recent Hispanic immigrants, Juan Martinez was stumped by the race question on his census form, which offered these choices: white, black or American Indian.

"I'm Hispanic," said the 41-year-old construction worker from El Salvador. "But that's not a race. It's confusing."

After hearing a pitch on Spanish-language radio for a census rally underway at a shopping mall in Langley Park, Martinez hurried over on Saturday to get help completing his census questionnaire.

"Here, you have to adapt to the American system," said Karla Silvestre, the Latino liaison for Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), sympathizing with Martinez's quandary.

Census posters and balloons adorned a stage in the parking lot outside a grocery store, and singers crooned ballads in Spanish and girls in bright costumes danced and twirled. Volunteers helped those who arrived with census forms. The area around Langley Park, home to many recent immigrants, has been undercounted in previous censuses, said Jessy Mejia of the Maryland Governor's Commission on Hispanic Affairs, and local officials hope that this year's performance will be better. The census rally was one of three held Saturday in Montgomery with the help of the governor's office and Prince George's County.

Governments and organizations across the country are making a final push to encourage people to return their questionnaires. Events promoting the census are planned for virtually every day until mid-April, from a fiesta with puppets and piƱatas in Falls Church on Sunday to a hip-hop chess tournament in the District on April 10.

Cash-strapped local governments are issuing urgent pleas for participation, because more than $400 billion -- by some accounts, more than $500 billion -- in federal funds are allotted annually based, at least partly, on census data.

The Census Bureau has posted a map online that is updated daily and shows by jurisdiction the percentage of people who have returned their forms. The purpose is twofold: to highlight areas with low response rates that need more work and to foster a sense of competition among communities. The mayors of St. Louis and Kansas City, for example, have waged a friendly bet over which city will perform better.

Nationwide, 34 percent of households had returned their forms as of Saturday. In the Washington area, about one in three households had responded, ranging from a low of 29 percent in the District to a high of 40 percent in Loudoun County.

The Constitution requires a count every 10 years of all people residing in the nation, and the Census Bureau goes to great lengths to reach people who don't live in homes with a permanent address attached.

Last week, it began sending census-takers to RV parks, circuses, marinas and campgrounds. At the end of March, workers will be sent to soup kitchens, shelters and outdoor locations where homeless people live. In April, census workers will count people in group quarters such as dorms and assisted living facilities and venture into rapidly changing settlements along the border between Texas and Mexico. In their quest to reach everyone, census-takers have ridden horses and mules into remote locations in the Southwest, hopped aboard all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles in Maine, and gone by plane and snowshoes into the mountains of Alaska.

The Census Bureau expects to hire about 700,000 people, at a cost of $10 to $25 an hour each, to knock on the doors of people who do not respond by late April. Working mostly weekends and evenings, they plan to make at least six visits to homes whose responses are not received; if they still don't reach the residents, they will ask neighbors how many people live there.

Census officials estimate that it costs $85 million to count every 1 percent of households that do not send in their forms, or a total of about $1.5 billion.

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