Census nears 2000 mail-in response rate

By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 23, 2010

The 32,000 residents of rural Botetourt County in southwestern Virginia were census overachievers this year. As of Thursday, 83 percent of them had mailed in their questionnaires, far surpassing the 60 percent who returned their forms in the 2000 Census and the current statewide average of 75 percent.

Local officials did nothing different. Assistant County Administrator Spencer Suter said residents were responding to the Census Bureau's $133 million ad campaign.

"I wish we could jump in there and claim a bunch of credit," he said. "But we haven't put a tremendous amount of time or money into it. It's a tribute to the work the census folks are doing this year."

As forms continue to trickle in, Americans are poised to match, and could overtake, the 72 percent who returned their short forms during the last census.

In many places, residents have done far better than they did 10 years ago. More than one in five of the nation's counties have outperformed their 2000 rate by five percentage points or more, according to an analysis by the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York. But many large cities have low response rates, as do some rural areas with many residents who are considered difficult to count. Typically, they are low-income people, immigrants and minorities.

Both the District and Virginia are improving on their 2000 performances, and Maryland has matched its 2000 rate.

The ultimate success of the census depends on the next phase. The Census Bureau is hiring about 630,000 temporary workers to go door to door, starting May 1, to find people who haven't yet returned their forms.

Although final mail-in response rates won't be available until next week, the assessment of the 2010 Census has begun.

Some had hoped the mail-in phase would outpace the nationwide participation of a decade ago. "In 2000, we had an undercount in communities of color and an overcount in white communities," said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League and chairman of the Census Advisory Committee. "We shouldn't use it as a yardstick."

More challenging

This census was considered more challenging than the last one because the recession led to foreclosures, vacant housing and more shared homes, all of which make it more difficult to count the population. And the census was, in effect, the face of Washington at a time of discontent with government.

"This is a very surprising and pleasing success," said Census Bureau Director Robert M. Groves, who noted that response rates for surveys both public and private have plummeted.

Steve Jost, associate director of communications for the census, said that matching the 2000 response rate "is a positive sign for the country. Maybe the country's doing better than news coverage suggests and people came together in this moment for the common good."

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