With the census less than a year away, cities across the country are gearing up fast. Although the census is a constitutional responsibility of the federal government, cities know they'll be the losers if the feds miss many of their people.
In addition to the numbers used for congressional representation, census data determine the formulas for lots of federal funds. Last time, according to the federal Government Accountability Office, census-takers missed 2 percent of Americans. Each uncounted individual can cost a jurisdiction as much as $800 per year in foregone grant money, so a good-sized city can easily be out millions due to an undercount.
Ironically, suggests Jay Ash, the city manager of Chelsea, Massachusetts, it's the high-poverty cities, those most reliant on state and federal funds, that are hardest to count. The homeless can be almost impossible to reach. Illegal immigrants are reluctant to give up personal information to the government.
In 2000, the national response rate to the initial census questionnaire was two-thirds. But many cities lagged behind. In New York City, only 55 percent answered the Census Bureau's first mailing. Some neighborhoods were below 40 percent. Getting those rates up is a priority this time for Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Denver also had a serious problem with response in 2000, and the city is spending $250,000 to improve its performance. In the initial phase, Denver mainly is alerting residents to the fact that the census is coming up, but it also is designing a sophisticated media strategy for next year to reach young people through text messaging and Twitter. Columbus, Ohio, already has started a canvass of housing units, using GPS technology, to be sure dwellings aren't missed by the federal counters.
And more than 2,000 cities have established "complete count committees" for 2010, partnering with churches, food centers and schools to coordinate strategy. "There's often a difference between someone from a government entity telling you that you have nothing to fear from filling out a government form," says Marc LaVorgna, a spokesman for New York's Mayor Bloomberg, "and somebody from a community organization that you interface with on a daily basis."