Census takers to return to homes where forms weren't sent back

Susi Baranano trains census takers in D.C. on counting people who ignored previous requests to send back their census forms.
Susi Baranano trains census takers in D.C. on counting people who ignored previous requests to send back their census forms. (Gerald Martineau For The Washington Post)
By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 29, 2010

The 20 people huddled around six folding tables in a basement dance studio in Columbia Heights will soon fan out across the District on behalf of the census.

But this week, they are training to master the intricacies of counting people who were so apathetic or so averse to the census that they ignored every pleading to mail back their forms.

As an introduction to the task before the census taker trainees she leads, Susi Baranano went through scenarios that run the gamut of the modern U.S. family.

Ask for everyone's last name, even the children's, because their names may be different. Count live-in nannies and foreign exchange students, because citizenship is not relevant. Don't count the college student who lives in a dorm or the homeless man who stays with his sister sometimes, because he'll be counted at the shelter.

"The rule is, we count people where they live or sleep most of the time," Baranano said.

Almost 8,000 census takers will be canvassing the Washington region, including 2,600 each in Northern Virginia and the Maryland suburbs, and 2,700 in the District.

They will join an army of about 600,000 census takers across the country who are being trained this week to go to some 48 million addresses where nobody mailed back a census form. Nationwide, 72 percent returned their questionnaires, exactly the same performance as in the 2000 Census. In addition to D.C. and Puerto Rico, 28 states met or surpassed their response rates from the 2000 Census.

Census Bureau Director Robert M. Groves said Wednesday that his expectations were exceeded, because U.S. pollsters have noticed a steady decline in response rates over the past two decades.

He said several factors helped hold the response rate steady: replacement forms that were mailed to neighborhoods with low response rates in 2000, a $330 million advertising and partnership campaign, and the decision to drop a longer questionnaire and mail only the 10-question short form. Response rates for the American Community Survey, which replaced the long form, have fallen 5 percent over the past decade.

"The challenge is much more difficult than in 2000," Groves said. "In that context, you look at [72 percent] and say, 'Wow! It's unbelievable!' "

The 2010 Census is estimated to cost $14.7 billion, compared with an inflation-adjusted $9.3 billion for the 2000 Census. Groves said it is too early to say what the final cost will be, but he anticipates returning money to the Treasury because the response rate was better than expected.

The next phase begins Saturday and runs through mid-July, as the census takers visit homes. They will make up to six attempts to contact residents, including visits and phone calls, before asking neighbors how many people live in a particular home.

The census takers will be spending most of their time in low-income neighborhoods. Lagging response rates traditionally have been attributed to communities with many minorities and immigrants. But Groves said his analysis suggests low responses result more from socioeconomic forces, such as high vacancy rates, more rented apartments than single-family homes occupied by owners, poverty and low-education levels.

Census officials say there is no evidence that calls to boycott the census were heeded. Nevertheless, census takers are being trained on how to respond to people who oppose the census because they consider it intrusive and unconstitutional, as some conservatives argue. Groves said workers are advised to spell out the role of the census in drawing congressional districts and dividing more than $400 billion in federal funds, and to tell residents that it's their "civic obligation" to comply.

The census takers, who are being paid $20 an hour in the District and slightly less in the suburbs will work an average of 20 to 30 hours a week, much of it evenings and weekends, when people are more apt to be home. They will each be given a list of addresses to check, and will report to crew leaders daily. This week, the Census Bureau's ad campaign also shifts gears. It no longer will say it's not too late to mail back a form, but will implore people to be nice to census takers who come to their doors.

Omeira Figueroa, 28, is one. A part-time customer service representative at a grocery store, she said she applied for the job because she wants to help improve her neighborhood of Columbia Heights, where she lives.

"As I'm getting older, I've learned more about what the census does for a community," she said after her first day of training in the basement of the Gala Hispanic Theatre on 14th Street NW. "I sit in amazement that my neighborhood has changed so much. And now I get to rediscover it all over again."

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