Big cities, rural areas both trail on census returns

By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Residents of big cities and rural areas are lagging in returning their census questionnaires, but at least two states and hundreds of smaller jurisdictions have surpassed the rates they achieved in 2000, Census Bureau Director Robert M. Groves said Monday.

About two in three households have responded so far, and this is the final week to mail back the 10-question forms to avoid having a census taker come out, starting in May. On April 19, census officials will begin compiling a master list of addresses from which there was no response. They expect to hire more than 700,000 census takers to make up to six personal visits so they can complete the count.

Groves said North Carolina, with a 68 percent response rate, and South Carolina, at 67 percent, are each two percentage points ahead of their counts for the last census, while Kentucky has matched its 2000 rate of 70 percent. The national average was 66 percent as of Monday.

"Things are going quite well," Groves said.

Many rural locations, particularly in the South and the West, account for some of the low response rates. Much of the area along the Texas-Mexico border is below 60 percent. Groves said he is "alarmed" at how big cities are doing. The 25 most populous cities are all several percentage points below where they were in 2000,

In Virginia, 70 percent have sent their forms back, compared with 73 percent by the end of April in 2000; Maryland is at 68 percent, compared with 74 percent in 2000; and in the District, 62 percent have responded, compared with 66 percent in 2000.

Groves attributed lower response rates to such factors as language barriers among new immigrants and the difficulty of counting rural households that use post office boxes instead of street addresses for their mail.

But he said census officials can find no evidence of any impact from calls by some conservatives to boycott the census or answer only questions counting the number of people living in a household. Only 1 or 2 percent of the forms returned are partially complete, which is about what officials expected, he said. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has said that census questions have become too intrusive and that her family will not fully complete the form.

"Look at Minnesota," Groves said, referring to the census map showing that 74 percent of Minnesotans have returned their forms.

Groves said the census, estimated to cost $15 billion, is under budget, although the final cost will depend on how many census takers have to be hired to look for those who haven't responded.

He also said several census takers have been injured while venturing into campsites trying to count people living outdoors. Some of the sites have been booby-trapped on the perimeter, he said, and the census takers set off the traps when they approached.

"Some of the booby traps have caused gashes on their legs," he said, adding that none of the injuries has been serious.

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