State, local government budgets hamper census outreach

By Associated Press
Monday, April 12, 2010

OAKLAND, CALIF. -- State and local governments hammered by the recession have cut spending on outreach for the 2010 Census, leaving hard-to-reach neighborhoods with response rates that may fall behind the count a decade ago, officials said.

The funding cutbacks have come at all levels, and at a cost.

California, for example, dedicated $24.7 million to the 2000 Census campaign. Although an undercount could cost the state billions in federal funding and a seat in Congress, this year's outreach budget is only $2 million.

Two weeks into the count, the state's census form return rates are about 10 percent behind the 2000 total, officials said, adding that the numerical disparity would be worse without the efforts of philanthropic and community-based organizations.

"We need to make a push to make sure we at least stay even," said Louis Stewart, deputy director of California's census outreach. "There is a lot riding on this count." More than $435 billion a year is distributed by the federal government to states based on census-driven funding formulas. California could lose about $3,000 a year for each resident not counted this year.

The 2000 Census found 33.9 million people in the state. It is estimated that the population will exceed 38 million in 2010.

Residents have until April 19 to mail back their forms. After that, their answers will have to be collected by census workers going door to door at considerable expense.

Alameda County is one of the state's hardest areas to count because of its diversity, its pockets of poverty and the language barriers faced by its varied immigrant groups. But this year, Stewart said, only $50,000 has been allocated for outreach there, compared with about $250,000 in 2000.

Oakland went from hiring additional people for the census effort in 2000 to having no money set aside for this year. City employees are taking on the task instead.

The city's response rate as of April 8 was 57 percent, compared with the 2000 total of 65 percent.

"Millions of dollars that would go elsewhere could go instead to Oakland," said city council member Ignacio de la Fuente, alternating English and Spanish. He asked residents to think of the future of their children and of the money that could go to their schooling and health care, and to fill in their census forms.

Cities and counties across the country have been forced to shed staff to keep their budgets in the black. But when it comes to allocating funding for census outreach, they should be thinking long-term, Census Bureau spokesman Sonny Le said.

"The census count is going to last for 10 years," he said. "So you're talking about shortsightedness." The response rates have been kept from falling even lower in part by work that philanthropic foundations and community-based organizations have done to fill the outreach gap.

This census has seen unprecedented commitment on the part of the philanthropic community, which dedicated about $15 million to promotion efforts, said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee who also advised President Obama's transition team on the census.

Much of the funding went to hard-to-count areas and the community organizations serving them.

"It's making a huge difference," Lowenthal said, adding that some areas deemed hard to count by the Census Bureau have seen response rates exceed expectation and exceed the national average because of this collaboration.

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