N.D. County Leads Nation In Returning Census Forms

As the Census Bureau launched its big push for the return of Census forms, rural counties in the upper Midwest have the highest response rates. Puerto Rico, Alaska, Washington, D.C., and rural counties in Texas and the West have the lowest rates. At stake are billions in federal funding and representation in Congress. Pierce County, N.D., has returned 75 percent of its completed forms.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And as Frank just pointed out, some of the job gains are a result of the temporary hiring by the U.S. Census. Many of those new jobs are part of the massive push to get people to actually return their census forms.

But if you haven't yet completed your 10 questions, you're not alone. Only about half the households that received census forms have sent them back. Thats around 60 million homes, condos and apartments.

Here's NPR's Howard Berkes.

HOWARD BERKES: Pierce County, North Dakota is at the geographic center of North America. But yesterday, Pierce County's 4,500 citizens achieved another milestone: The nation's highest rate of response to the U.S. Census. We're talking 75 percent.

Matt Mullally is the editor at the Pierce County Tribune.

Mr. MATT MULLALLY (Editor, Pierce County Tribune): We have a large senior citizen population. To them, this is an important - it's the census, their duty as a rural area. We know - we receive a lot of funding through the federal government and from the state. So it's important.

BERKES: But 1,300 miles away on the doorstep of the Census Bureau, the response rate is far lower. In Washington, D.C., just 50 percent of the people whove receive census forms have mailed them back. That has census officials out in the neighborhoods at events like this one at Ben's Chili Bowl, a D.C. landmark.

DJ SHACK N DA PAC (Radio DJ): The Census 2010, we cannot move forward until you mail it back. The director of the census is here today until 9:00. Come on through...

BERKES: That's DJ Shack N Da Pack from radio station WPGC, who really did have census director Robert Groves with him.

The commotion got Gregory Coley(ph) to stop. He hadn't filled out a census form yet.

Mr. GREGORY COLEY: Well, its impossible if you dont receive one.

BERKES: Coley has a post office box like 12 million others across the country, and census forms only go to street addresses. By law, people must be counted where they actually live, not where they pick up their mail. So Colley and other box holders will get forms hand delivered by census workers. That's one reason the response rate is lower in some places so far. Colley hints on another.

Mr. COLLEY: Because sometimes, I believe people think that they're trying to nose in inside their households. But I think that this is to build up their community, not the nosing inside their households.

BERKES: Census director Robert Groves later explained that the kind of suspicion Colley describes is part of what makes it more difficult to get census forms back from cities.

Mr. ROBERT GROVES (Director, Census Bureau): There tend to be more households that are of a more transient nature. They turn over more quickly. There tend to be more new immigrant groups. There's more diversity on language. There is a greater diversity on educational achievement. All of those things end up producing the tendency to lower rates.

BERKES: But there isnt a clear urban-rural divide, because the counties with the lowest response rates are also rural. Zapata County, Texas has been at the bottom of the list with just 16 percent of census forms returned. Groves has been there and in other communities along the Mexico border.

Mr. GROVES: The English-speaking skills are rare. They are communities that are poor. These are people who've come to the country seeking a better life, but they are fearful of any questioning from the federal government for reasons that seem obvious.

BERKES: The Census Bureau tries to make headway in resistant places by enlisting the help of local leaders and groups who are already trusted. There's advertising with customized messages in native languages. And there's some indication that's working, at least among Hispanics. Mark Lopez is with the Pew Hispanic Center, which just released a census survey.

Mr. MARK LOPEZ (Associate Director, Pew Hispanic Center): About 70 percent of Hispanics overall are pretty positive about the census. And, also, they're pretty knowledgeable about the census. And about 85 percent say that they either have or plan to send in their census form in the next few weeks.

BERKES: That would be a huge 15 percent leap over the response 10 years ago, which has some wondering whether the people surveyed merely said what they thought they should say. That's what William O'Hare suspects. O'Hare is a demographer at the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. And he says the real response rate of all these groups is critical.

Mr. WILLIAM O'HARE: (Demographer, Carsey Institute, University of New Hampshire): Power is based on census numbers - not only congressional, but local districts had to be curbed up to meet the one person, one vote criteria. But I think equally important and maybe more important is the distribution of $447 billion in federal funds every year. So if they're missed in the census, they really lose twice.

BERKES: The response rate changes daily as census forms roll in, and soon, census takers will be canvassing the country for those who have yet to respond.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

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