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Government, Politics & Issues

Census director lists reasons everyone should be counted

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 1, 2009 - U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert M. Groves chose a St. Louis elementary school today to launch a national effort aimed at enlisting children to help persuade adults to participate in the national census that gets underway in March.

The once-every-10-years count is "the route to good things," Groves said in an interview as he summarized his pitch to the nation's children -- channeled via his address to 21 first-graders at Gateway Elementary School.

The other part of his message: "Nothing bad can happen by participating."

Groves emphasized at Gateway, as he is across the country, that filling out the census forms is "a safe thing to do."

He acknowledged that some Americans, particularly illegal immigrants, can be suspicious of the census and the information it collects. Groves made a point of highlighting the privacy protections of the census, even from high-placed prying political eyes.

U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis and chairman of the House panel overseeing the census, cast in stark terms for his first-grade audience the political stakes for residents in the St. Louis area and around the state.

"The census is really about three things," Clay said. "Money, power and information."

Missouri stands to lose out on all three, he said, if its residents -- even those who are illegal immigrants -- decline to be counted.

Clay and others then offered up the details:

Money: Every uncounted person in Missouri, the congressman explained, will mean the loss of $1,200 a year in federal money -- or $12,000 over 10 years -- from various government programs that use the census to determine how much a state receives.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay -- who had successfully sought census recounts of St. Louis -- echoed the financial importance. "How much money we get depends on how many people we have,'' the mayor said.

Power: Whether Missouri retains its nine members of the U.S. House, or loses one, will hinge on how well it -- and other states -- counts its residents. "We have to maintain our numbers, or we will lose a congressional seat,'' Clay said.

The census figures also will be used to draw the state Legislature's boundary lines for the 197 members of the state House (163) and state Senate (34), and local boundaries for aldermen or council people.

Information: The census is a portrait of America, and those who reside in it, Clay said. "It gives us a real snapshot of what America looks like."

In response to questions, Clay said he opposed any efforts to exclude illegal immigrants from the census. "We live in a country of laws,'' the congressman said. "We need to know how many people live within our borders."

Nationally, the Census Bureau is enlisting 3 million people -- 1.2 million of them as paid workers -- and 125,000 civic groups to help in the count. (He emphasized afterward that the embattled low-income activist group ACORN has been dropped as a participant.)

Groves said that the Census Bureau has found that local workers tend to do the best, and most accurate, job of counting in their own communities.

Groves said that today's appearance at Gateway was part of a national program by the Census Bureau to educate children on the basics of the census and its importance. Aside from influencing their families to participate, children also can make sure that they themselves are counted, he said.

"It's a little known fact, that the kids tend to be undercounted," Groves said.

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