Census Workers Rehearse for 2010 Tally

The Census Bureau is doing practice runs in Stockton, Calif. and Fayetteville, N.C., testing procedures to be used in the next census. One part of the test involves using the latest technology.

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The U.S. Census Bureau was holding what it calls a dress rehearsal for 2010. That's when the bureau is supposed to count everybody in America. The practice run takes place in two cities this week. One is Stockton, California and the other is Fayetteville, North Carolina where NPR's Adam Hochberg will now stand up to be counted.

ADAM HOCHBERG: The Census Bureau has been counting people for more than two centuries now, since Thomas Jefferson sent men out on horseback to measure the population of the new nation. But even with all that experience, the bureau expects the next census to be especially challenging. Simply put, Americans are becoming harder to keep track of.

Mr. WAYNE HATCHER (Regional Director, U.S. Census Bureau): So do you take a left up here to get to Ramsey?

Unidentified Man: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HATCHER: Oh, this is Ramsey. okay.

HOCHBERG: The Census Bureau's Wayne Hatcher recently led reporters on a van tour through Fayetteville where the bureau is practicing for 2010. The agency has a constitutional mandate to count everyone in America, which he tries to fulfill by mailing surveys to each household then visiting homes that don't respond.

But some people in census speak are hard to enumerate, like those who live in a low-income neighborhood where Hatcher stopped the van.

Mr. HATCHER: We're right at the edge of downtown. There's quite a few boarded -up homes; homes headed by a single female; percentage of homes that are under a poverty threshold; and plus, people that speak a language other than English at home. You combine all those factors, and it makes for some difficult census challenges.

HOCHBERG: Indeed, Fayetteville was chosen for the dress rehearsal because there are several challenges here - not just in this neighborhood, but all over town, like counting the thousands of soldiers, who normally live at Fort Bragg but now are deployed overseas; or measuring the growing population of immigrants who are supposed to be counted even if they're undocumented.

And then there are a number of social trends, not unique to Fayetteville, that bureau Deputy Director Jay Waite blames for making the census harder.

Mr. JAY WAITE (Deputy Director, U.S. Census Bureau): People are more mobile. People live in more complicated situations now. A lot more unrelated individuals getting themselves together in non-family situations. The task of counting is more difficult clearly than it was 20, 30, 40 years ago.

HOCHBERG: It's also more expensive. The cost of the once-a-decade census has grown exponentially from about $3 billion in 1990 to more than $6 billion in 2000 to a projected $11.6 billion in 2010. Waite attributes that to the new challenges the bureau faces, as well as the higher cost for things like gasoline and wages.

But some members of Congress say the Census Bureau hasn't worked hard enough to control expenses. Senator Tom Coburn is an Oklahoma Republican.

Senator TOM COBURN (Republican, Oklahoma): The cost of this is going to be horrendous, it's going to be $12 billion. And people ought to ask the question, why does it take $12 billion to survey 300 million Americans?

HOCHBERG: Coburn says the government could save money by conducting the census on the Internet, an idea the bureau rejects as impractical and a security risk. Still, census officials say they are trying to economize by embracing technology. During the dress rehearsal, census workers are being trained to use handheld computers rather then the notepads and maps they've carried in the past.

Unidentified Woman: The first icon that we will discuss is the home icon. Using your stylus, tap on the icon that looks like a house.

HOCHBERG: In this class, workers learn to use mapping software to verify addresses. They'll need that skill when they go door-to-door to canvass residents. For census worker Ramona Samuels, the computers are a big improvement from 2000 when she walked through neighborhoods with her hands full of paper.

Ms. RAMONA SAMUEL (Census Worker): We had the actual forms themselves, and we had a stack of forms, but you never know what you're going to encounter - a dog or something like that, or you might have to move quickly. This is going to be really, really good. I'm looking forward to using this.

HOCHBERG: The government plans to spend $600 million on handheld computers for the 2010 census, but it predicts the machines will save more than a billion dollars on printing and other costs. Of course, that assumes they worked the way they're supposed to, which is one of the biggest questions the dress rehearsal is intended to answer.

Adam Hochberg, NPR News.

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