Census nears 2000 mail-in response rate

By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 23, 2010; A18

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."

The Census Bureau's strategy was to spend lots of money promoting the census and its importance, both for apportioning seats in the House of Representatives and for spreading around more than $400 billion in federal funds every year.

Three decades of declining response rates reversed in 2000, when $100 million in paid ads replaced public service announcements that ran in the wee hours of the morning. This year, the Census Bureau budgeted $330 million for communications. More than a third went for advertising, most of it targeted at immigrants and other hard-to-count communities. The rest bought supplies for 165,000 partnerships the Census Bureau formed with local governments, businesses and organizations.

Rulers, fortune cookies

The money bought, for example, small rulers and fortune cookies with census messages for Chisago County, Minn., where the response rate went from 54 percent to 81 percent.

It also bought trinkets to pass out at the county fair in neighboring Washington County last fall. The county's seat is Stillwater, home town of Rep. Michele Bachmann (R), a census critic who has said that her family would not complete the form beyond answering how many people live in their home. By Thursday, 84 percent of households in Stillwater had mailed in their completed census forms, the same percentage as in 2000.

"I haven't received any calls from any residents unhappy about the census or anyone asking about Michele Bachmann," said Amanda Hollis, the county's point person for the census.

Minnesota assigned two full-time employees and one part-time worker to canvass the state, set up booths at state fairs and passed out palm cards urging snowbirds to count themselves as residents of the state no matter where they were on April 1.

Other states were equally aggressive. In 2000, South Carolina had the nation's second lowest response rate, 65 percent. This year, it has reached 73 percent.

"We were determined not to be that low again," said Bobby Bowers, director of the research office at the state budget control board. Bowers helped persuade legislators to spend $1 million for billboards and other ads across the state. "I've been scaring the heck out of everybody talking about the loss of revenue," he said.

Ken Prewitt, director of the 2000 Census, said he had expected the response rate to fall 4 to 5 percent short of the 2000 response rate because of the recession and widespread suspicion of government. "The advertising campaign as well as the outreach effort arrested what would have otherwise been a decline in the mail-back rate," he said.

In some places, census ads raised expectations too high. In New Mexico's rural Taos County -- where 40 percent have responded, compared with 44 percent in 2000 -- many residents have been disappointed to learn the census won't send forms to post office boxes, said Mike Trujillo, chairman of the county's Complete Count Committee. When they call the automated help line, they get more frustrated.

"They're not going to give private information to a machine," Trujillo said.

Many of the roughly 300,000 people living in colonias along the Mexican border near Brownsville, Tex., had seen or heard Spanish-language census ads and were eager to be counted, said Michael Seifert, a former Catholic priest who works in those neighborhoods with the coalition Equal Voices. "There was a kind of energy," he said. "People would call and say, 'I didn't get a form. I want to be counted.' "

Due to miscommunication, many were told mistakenly that they would receive their forms in the mail, even though most have post office boxes. Instead, census takers will visit their homes next month, and Seifert fears an ingrained suspicion of the federal government will cause many to ignore the knocks on their doors.

"It's going to be very difficult," he predicted.

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