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Survey answers are crucial

By Andrea Schneck

March 30, 2010 9:15 p.m.

Twelve U.S. Census Bureau districts across the country will collect population data and aggregate it at a national level, generating a report to present to President Obama.

By Dec. 31, an updated snapshot of the country will be created.

The U.S. Census Bureau, a constitutionally mandated organization required to count the nation’s population, has already begun recording the quantity and social makeup of the country. The numbers will be finalized by Dec. 31, 2010, and used to determine the apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives, as well as to distribute over $400 billion in federal funds for various governmental programs.

Depending on shifts in population, 435 total seats in the House of Representatives will be proportionally distributed to each state. States will use this information to redraw electoral district and congressional boundary lines to better reflect the makeup of the population.

In order to count more than 300 million residents, the 2010 Census began its work last year updating where houses, apartments and mobile homes are located, said Clint Helenihi, local Census office manager of San Diego. Questionnaires were sent out last week and will be checked against a larger address database to see which residents mailed the forms back. Those that do not return the forms will be visited by a Census employee, Helenihi said.

The Census differentiates between houses, apartments and mobile homes, group quarters such as dormitories and prisons, and individuals of transitory nature such as the homeless. While houses and apartments receive questionnaires, group quarters and transitory individuals will instead talk to a Census employee, Helenihi said.

To count individuals who do not have permanent homes, the Census will go to all temporary non-sheltered locations in the U.S. from midnight ““ 7 a.m. on March 31. Since these individuals move, the short time window minimizes the chance of a double count. The goal will be to count the number of homeless as well as to get background information similar to what is on the mailed Census form, Helenihi said.

The Census form contains 10 questions including how many people are staying in the home as of April 1, as well as the age, gender and race identified by each person. The simplicity of the form’s 10 questions is significant because they will be easy to fill out, potentially increasing the response rate, said Hovsep Gazazyan, local Census office manager of Pasadena. Past censuses have sent out a longer form, in which one out of six houses, apartments and mobile homes received 60 questions instead of 10, requiring more in-depth answers.

Despite the shorter form, the response rate and thus undercounting of the population is still a point of concern, said Tom Meredith, local Census office manager of Hollywood.

In the 2000 Census, an estimated 3.1 million people were not counted, he said. To help mitigate this problem, the Census is attempting to increase its advertising and especially “grassroots efforts” to reach out to local communities, Meredith said.

The Census has expanded its Partnership Department, a special subdivision that works with local businesses and communities to educate residents on why it is important to fill out and return their forms, as well as offer aid in their completion, Gazazyan said.

Of these resources, Questionnaire Assistance Centers and Be-Counted Centers are particularly important. Questionaire Assistance Centers are staffed by Census employees who help people with any questions concerning the census form, as well as provide forms to those who say they do not have one, Meredith said.

The Census also has unstaffed Be-Counted Centers, which is a place ““ for instance, a convenience store ““ where residents can pick-up questionnaires and information in different languages. This will help to increase return rates in areas with high minority populations, Meredith said.

Through advertisement and grassroots efforts, the census seeks to show that the forms are easy, important and safe to fill out, Gazazyan said.

“All that personal information is kept secret,” Gazazyan said. “Nobody can get personal information on anyone for 72 years under Title 13 of the U.S. Code.”

Each Census employee takes an oath of confidentiality, and the penalty for violation is up to $250,000 or up to five years in prison, Helenihi said.

The number of people that return the forms will affect the overall cost of conducting the census. For each percent increase in response rate, approximately $80 million in taxpayer dollars will be saved, Gazazyan said.

Census data can be used for many functions. For example, the data can help forecast future transportation needs, plan budgets for governments on all levels, direct services to those with limited English language proficiency, understand consumer needs, and understand and predict population trends.

For Gazazyan the most important reason for conducting the census is to ensure representation.

“Local legislation draws on this information. Everyone needs to stand up and be counted; they need to bring federal money back into their local communities and make a difference,” Gazazyan said.

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Andrea Schneck
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