Officials move to raise 2010 Census response rates

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The gulf that separates Woodland Terrace in Southeast Washington from Burke Centre in Fairfax County can be measured by income levels as well as unemployment and poverty rates. Over the next few weeks, another telling measurement will be the volume of mail as residents return thousands of census forms being delivered this week.

The two areas, just 25 miles apart, have had starkly different responses to the census in the past. In the 2000 Census, more than five out of six Burke Centre households promptly mailed in their questionnaires. In the census tract where Woodland Terrace is situated, less than half initially responded.

As the 2010 Census lands in 120 million mailboxes this week, officials are making a final push to encourage people to complete the forms, which have been streamlined to 10 questions. They are running ads, setting up booths at community events and dispatching canvassers to talk up the decennial count. With many communities hit hard by the recession and more than $400 billion in federal aid at stake, making sure residents get counted matters more than ever to budget-strapped local officials.

Those who don't fill out the questionnaires are apt to get a personal visit from a census taker, an expensive undertaking that could add $1.5 billion to census costs this year.

The Census Bureau will post daily updates by jurisdiction as the forms come in, hoping to drive an extra effort where responses lag.

Burke Centre, a planned community of 5,800 houses on winding streets named after trees, expects to rank high. Many residents are civil servants or connected to the military. They consider the census a civic responsibility, and most respond unbidden.

"It's the right thing to do," said Lisa McCormick, 35, an electrical engineer who grew up in Burke Centre and recently moved back with her husband and two children. "If you get counted, you help your local government get funding. It's a good thing."

Census officials say they are more worried about neighborhoods considered hard to count, such as Woodland Terrace. The apartment complex that lends its name to the neighborhood comprises more than 400 city-owned units, many in need of painting. About half of the area's residents live below the poverty line, census figures show, and the unemployment rate in that part of the city reached 28.5 percent in November, according to the D.C. Department of Employment Services.

Attitudes toward the census are mixed. Some residents regard it with suspicion; others hope it will generate money to build playgrounds and update the apartment complex's balky plumbing.

"I wish the money could bring me another place," said Pearlie Frager, 52, who sits on the Woodland Terrace resident council. Pointing to rainwater pooling outside her window, she said, "These apartments need to be fixed."

Darrell Gaston, 23, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission member responsible for part of Woodland Terrace, said he would be pleased if half or more of his constituents fill out their census forms. "These are communities that have been distrusting government for a long time when it comes to services or quality-of-life issues," Gaston said of Woodland Terrace and the residential streets around it. "To some people, just asking them to write in their name and birth date, it's critical and private information. They're going to ask, 'What do you want my name for? Who are you?' "

D.C. Council member Michael Brown (I-At Large), the council's census liaison, said myths about the count are widely held in the District, where just 65 percent of residents responded to the 2000 Census. People fear that providing information will bring authorities to their doors over unpaid parking tickets, or for having too many people living in a house, or calls from telemarketers. None of these is the case.

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