Census volunteers will pile on the pressure Saturday

By Carol Morello
Saturday, April 10, 2010; B01

From Langley Park at the Prince George's-Montgomery county line to the Triangle area of Prince William County, neighborhoods with large numbers of renters and immigrants are lagging in returning their 2010 Census forms.

Jurisdictions regionally and nationally are marshaling volunteers to go out Saturday into areas with low response rates and urge residents to complete their census forms, a campaign called "March to the Mailbox." In the Washington area, there will be festivals at shopping centers in Alexandria, a bus equipped with a megaphone roaming largely Hispanic neighborhoods in Prince George's County and fliers handed out at supermarkets in the District.

A soft deadline is approaching. On April 19, the Census Bureau will begin to compile addresses from which no form was returned so that census takers can make personal visits starting May 1. Census officials expect to hire more than 700,000 census takers nationwide for the task. They are urging people to have forms in the mail by April 16 to avoid a visit from a census taker. And on Sunday they will begin calling people who returned their questionnaires but whose answers need some clarification.

Most jurisdictions in the region have response rates at or above the national average of 65 percent. The District is slightly behind, at 61 percent, as is Prince George's County, at 62 percent. Loudoun County has the highest response rate, 71 percent, while Montgomery and Fairfax counties are at 70 percent.

This year, local officials have been able to monitor how they're doing through a Census Bureau map that is updated daily with response rates down to each census tract, a level that can cross jurisdictional lines within a county but generally contains about 4,000 people. The map allows them to focus their efforts on neighborhoods with low response rates.

"It's a powerful tool," said Penny Mendoza, who is helping to coordinate census efforts in Prince George's County. "I find I'm glued to the monitor charting our progress."

An analysis of the responses so far by the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York's Graduate Center shows that counties with higher percentages of white residents tend to have higher response rates than counties with higher percentages of black and Hispanic residents. At the census tract level, neighborhoods that are home to more African Americans, Hispanics and Asians have lower response rates. Among the areas considered hard to count are neighborhoods that have more immigrants, minorities, renters and poor people.

Response rates also are low around colleges and beachfront resorts, such as Ocean City and Rehoboth Beach, Del. County officials said the poor showings reflect the large number of second homes and condos that are mostly vacant in April.

A bump is expected in the coming week, when responses start rolling in from colleges and universities. At George Washington University, school officials gave forms to students last week and put large census mailboxes in the residence halls. A similar push is underway at Howard University and the University of Maryland in College Park.

"If you live in the more upscale areas, you're probably going to respond," said Tony Reyes, chairman of the Complete Count Committee in Prince William County. He noted that some of the lower response rates come from tracts that have homes with basements or rooms to rent.

In Alexandria, 53 percent of the residents of the Southern Towers apartments on Seminary Road -- a complex so large it forms its own census tract -- have responded, compared with 66 percent citywide. Many residents there are recent immigrants, which also was true in 2000 when the tract had the lowest response rate in the city, said Ralph Rosenbaum, who is leading the city's census push. On Saturday, the city plans to have census materials at tables there staffed by Arabic, Spanish and Amharic speakers.

Fairfax is focusing its efforts along Route 1, which has a concentration of low-income and limited-English-speaking residents, said county spokesman Brian Worthy.

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