U.S. Census Bureau Gears Up For 2010 Count

It's the count that counts. The 2010 census begins an ad blitz this week, and the goal is the same one the Constitution mandated more than two centuries ago: Count everyone within the U.S. borders. Host Guy Raz visits one of the toughest places to count — the streets of Washington, D.C. — with Maurice Henderson, the head of the city's outreach for the 2010 census; and Juan Carlos Ruiz, a longtime community organizer. And for the big picture, Raz talks to U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Groves about the chronic undercount and the peculiar challenges posed by the foreclosure crisis.

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GUY RAZ, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

This week, the U.S. Census Bureau launches a nationwide ad campaign ahead of this year's count. As the Constitution mandates, everyone - felons, migrant workers, newborns, the homeless - every single person within the borders of the country is counted every 10 years. It's the largest nonmilitary operation mounted by the U.S. government. And so, how do you start counting 300 million people?

Dr. ROBERT GROVES (Director, U.S. Census Bureau): Believe it or not, we measure Alaska first.

RAZ: That's Robert Groves. He's the director of the U.S. Census.

Dr. GROVES: We need to get up there before the spring thaw begins. But the vast majority of folks in America will get a mailed questionnaire in mid-March.

RAZ: Mm-hmm.

Dr. GROVES: And we ask them to fill it out and mail it back by April 1.

RAZ: And if you do that, it will save the Census Bureau billions of dollars. Now, we're going to hear more from Robert Groves in a few minutes. But first this hour, we begin with a look at the stakes for getting the count right.

We took a walk through a neighborhood here in Washington, D.C., that illustrates some of the challenges Census workers will face.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman: Thank you.

RAZ: We ran into Merritt Drucker(ph) passing out flyers about the Census in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood here in Washington on a freezing cold morning. This is the heart of the city's Central American population. Many folks here are undocumented; most from places like El Salvador and Guatemala.

Now, Drucker is part of an army of volunteers and workers who'll try and convince every person in the city to fill out the Census form this year. And why such a push? I met Maurice Henderson at a restaurant in the neighborhood to find out.

Mr. MAURICE HENDERSON: Thirty-five hundred dollars per person is what this basically equaled out to. So for every single head that we count, we're talking about a little over $3,500.

RAZ: There's a lot of money at stake.

Mr. HENDERSON: There's a lot of money at stake.

RAZ: Henderson works for the mayor's office, and he's in charge of outreach for the Census here in the district of Columbia. And as he explains, the higher the count, the higher the federal funds. And each year, $400 billion are divvied up by Congress and sent to the states. It's money that's distributed based on Census data.

Now, it turns out Washington, D.C., is one of the hardest places in America to get an accurate count.

Mr. HENDERSON: We have, of the Census tracks that the Census Bureau follows, 55 percent of ours are what they deem hard to count.

RAZ: So more than half of the population of this city is considered, based on the statistics, difficult to reach.

Mr. HENDERSON: Yes.

RAZ: Why such a high number?

Mr. HENDERSON: Well, when you're looking at it statistically, you've got 12 percent of our population is foreign-born. 15 percent speak a language other than English in the household. You've got a high number of renters, so a very transient population.

RAZ: In every census, there are people who are missed. And D.C. actually went to court a few years back to challenge the official numbers from the 2000 count. And as a result, the city managed to add 30,000 people to its population.

And that's why guys like Juan Carlos Ruiz are so important to Maurice Henderson. Ruiz is also at the restaurant where I meet Henderson. He's originally from Peru and now a community organizer here in the neighborhood. Everyone knows him. But still many people, he says, are suspicious about handing over information to the government. So here's the pitch Ruiz makes.

Mr. JUAN CARLOS RUIZ: Look, this is going to benefit your children this way, this way, this way. This is going to benefit the church this way. This is going to be your schools. This is going to be your health care. So you've got to be very clear in saying this is what is going to happen if you do this.

RAZ: The problem is that plenty of people are here without legal papers. Multiple families sometimes share two or three-bedroom apartments. It's a violation of the city's code, so they're scared to fill out the Census forms because they worry that that information will be used to evict them or maybe even deport them, which it won't because the Census Bureau, by law, has to keep that data private.

But then, for some others here, well, take Publio Fernandez(ph). He is one of a dozen men standing along a wall outside 7-Eleven. Fernandez doesn't think the mayor is doing enough for his community. So he's not convinced that filling out the form will matter all that much.

Mr. PUBLIO FERNANDEZ: I don't pay too much attention because, right now, what the mayor is doing - the mayor is not doing too much for the city anyway.

RAZ: Do you think you'll fill out your Census form or maybe not?

Mr. FERNANDEZ: Maybe yes. Maybe yes.

RAZ: Do you think it's important to fill out, you know, all that information?

Mr. FERNANDEZ: It might help. It might not. I'm not too positive about it, no.

RAZ: Fernandez and the others hang around outside, in plain view. So easy to see, but so hard to count, which is why Juan Carlos Ruiz shakes his head in frustration.

Mr. RUIZ: Do you see the trust issue there?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUIZ: The trust issue is huge.

RAZ: You have your work cut out for you.

Mr. RUIZ: We have. We have. It's not going to be easy.

RAZ: And that's just in Washington, D.C. But what about on a national level? How can the Census be sure its count is accurate? Here is the U.S. Census director Robert Groves.

Dr. GROVES: All of the efforts of the 2010 census design are focused on attempting to improve the quality of the counting across all groups with special consideration of groups that tended to be undercounted or groups that tended to be over-counted. We have both kinds of groups in the country.

Our advertising is focused disproportionately on those groups that tended to have low return rates in 2000. All of our efforts in terms of outreach and data collection efforts will be focused on reducing that differential undercount.

RAZ: Now, according to D.C. Count(ph), a group here in Washington, D.C., 18 to 39-year-old African-American males nationwide are traditionally the hardest group to count. Why do you think that is?

Dr. GROVES: Well, I think when you look at what the influences on difficulty to count are, they actually go across demographic groups. And so, the group you mention is a group where their attachment to individual households is sometimes tenuous. They may live with a girlfriend for a few days of the week and with their family another day, with a roommate another day. And so, when the simple questionnaire is asked who lives in this household, it becomes a little ambiguous.

RAZ: Mm-hmm.

Dr. GROVES: That attribute is actually shared by kids who are one to 9 years old to kids who live in families with divorced parents and may have a shared custody situation. We tend to miss them, too.

RAZ: Or count them twice?

Dr. GROVES: We tend to miss them...

RAZ: Mm-hmm.

Dr. GROVES: ...as it turns out. And you could imagine them being counted twice as well. So we have trouble in households that are non-traditional in some sense.

RAZ: And foreclosures as well may be an issue this year.

Dr. GROVES: Foreclosures are a big issue. The problem with foreclosures is two-fold. One, we're going to spend more money on this census because of foreclosures. So we will mail out questionnaires to those addresses. They won't come back because no one lives at those addresses. And then in May, we will go out and knock on those doors. And we're going to knock several times to make sure that it is, indeed, vacant.

So the first impact of foreclosures is we're going to spend money on those vacant units. That's bad enough. But what I'm more concerned about is that - is where the people who used to live in those units now live. We want those new arrivals to those housing units to be counted there.

This is a big message we're trying to get out effectively because the surveys that we're doing prior to the census have told us that there's a bit of a stigma attached to having gone through this tragedy. And the family of the household that has been joined by these folks are a little reluctant to say they're living here as opposed to just visiting. But since they don't have any other household, that's our only way to get them counted. We want them counted at their new, temporary quarters.

RAZ: Robert Groves, what do you anticipate will be the biggest change? And what do you think the impact of that will be?

Dr. GROVES: Well, this is pure personal speculation, but we're all going to be surprised at the geographical dispersion of new immigrant groups. You know, I think a major finding out of the census 2000 was the growth of the Hispanic population.

RAZ: Mm-hmm.

Dr. GROVES: I think a sub-story out of 2010 will be that the new immigrant groups are everywhere. It's not just a coastal phenomenon where they immigrate to the East Coast and the West Coast. They're in small towns in every state of the union. There are little clusters of groups, often sponsored by a church to help an initial family from an immigrant group, and it begins to act as a magnet for others. And that's an interesting story. It's almost the renewal of the American story writ large.

RAZ: That's Robert Groves. He is the director of the U.S. Census Bureau. The forms should start arriving to your home in mid-March.

Dr. Groves, thanks so much.

Dr. GROVES: Thank you very much.

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