On paper, it looks like an easy job: persuade well-educated, well-paid adults to fill out a form and mail it. But that's not the case when it comes to Loudoun County and the census.
For all their concern about finding and counting the poor, the homeless and immigrants, U.S. Census Bureau officials say the typical Loudoun resident is among their toughest customers when it comes to taking the national head count.
In an effort to coax mailed responses out of more Loudoun households, census organizers have been attending town meetings, civic group gatherings and religious services and visiting community centers during the last few months to promote the 2000 census, which will take place in March.
"It's a fast-paced world," said Jim Brantley, a spokesman for the bureau's Virginia office. "People see this as just another piece of mail coming in. They think, 'I don't have time.' They think it's an intrusion into their lives."
But the census, conducted every 10 years by constitutional mandate, has a substantial, if indirect, effect on individual lives. It supplies information that determines how many members of the U.S. House of Representatives can be elected from each state, which can lead to substantial shifts in political power and money from one part of the country to another.
The findings also determine how much federal aid cities and states receive and help government officials decide where roads, health care centers and schools will be built and where services are needed for senior citizens. Companies also use the data to develop marketing and expansion plans.
"The census affects everything people do," said Van R. Lawrence, one of the Census Bureau's workers who specializes in creating government and community partnerships in the Virginia area. "Most people don't even realize how much power it has on their community."
Census organizers said they are hoping to combat apathy with a $160 million national advertising campaign. They also have launched programs to encourage school-age children to remind their parents to fill out the forms. Leesburg officials have agreed to send reminders on sewer and water bills. Loudoun County officials are working with civic groups to promote the count.
"We try to make it as easy as possible for people," Brantley said. "We know the form takes 10 minutes to fill out. People spend more time on credit card applications." He shows off a bright red and white brochure that reads, "This is your future, don't leave it blank."
The forms are to be delivered in March and must be mailed back by April 1. In the 1990 U.S. Census, an estimated 32 percent to 40 percent of Loudoun residents failed to return their forms--about the national average. But in 2000 the goal for Loudoun is to cut that percentage in half.
Because homes in parts of Loudoun County, particularly the south and west, are far off the main roads--whether they are large farms or gated estates--census leaders said they sometimes struggle to reach residents in person to count noses. And in Loudoun, the fastest-growing county in the commonwealth, organizers said they have had to double-check maps, particularly in the east, for new communities.
"The last time we were out in force counting was 10 years ago, and now we've got entire subdivisions that have popped up," said Bob Gabbard, a Charlotte-based regional recruiting manager for the Virginia area. "If there was a field there last year, now it's got houses and streetlights."
To increase the reliability of the census, the bureau hires counters, who make $6.75 to $14 an hour knocking on doors and taking down answers in person from those who have not returned questionnaires. The bureau also recruits community leaders, such as members of civic, social or religious groups, to encourage people to fill out the forms and mail them in.
"People feel more comfortable hearing about something from someone in their own community," Brantley said.
Tamara Hrynko, of Middleburg, said she decided to become a census recruiter in her area last July after she saw an ad.
"I personally believe in the census and what it can provide for people in the money their areas get," she said. "We all pay taxes. We should get something back. We don't want Loudoun to miss out."