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Making sense of Census 2010

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 5, 2010 - As the effort to count everyone living in America kicks into high gear, it’s time to get a grasp of how the process works, who’s involved and what’s at stake. These topics and more are discussed in this conversation with Dennis Johnson, regional director of the U.S. Census Bureau, whose area includes St. Louis.

But first, a quick primer.

  • The census is an attempt to take stock of everyone living in the U.S. -- both citizens and noncitizens.
  • Census data are used to reapportion congressional seats to states and affect how more than $400 billion a year in federal funding is allocated to state, local and tribal governments.
  • This year’s form has 10 questions.
  • Census forms will be delivered or mailed to households starting in March; Census workers will visit households that do not return forms to take a count in person.
  • Census Day is April 1, 2010. Responses to the census form should include everyone at that address.
  • By law, the Census Bureau can’t share respondents’ answers with anyone, including other federal agencies and law enforcement entities.

And now, on to the condensed interview with Johnson, which came on a day in which a regional census road tour stopped in St. Louis.
Beacon: So what exactly is your region?
Johnson: I’m in the Kansas City region, which covers six states – Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Arkansas. 

Beacon: It’s been reported that the Census Bureau is enlisting about 3 million people – 1.2 million of them as paid workers – as well scores of civic groups to help with the effort. What’s the case in your region?
Johnson: Yes, the idea is to recruit about 3 million people nationally. Regionally, we are estimating that we will recruit 40,000 workers for the six states. Most will be considered part-time, but they can work up to 40 hours a week.

Beacon: How do those numbers compare to typical staffing numbers?
Johnson: Outside a census year we normally employ about 500 individuals. The 40,000 I refered to are mostly new workers who report to managers in 35 local offices across the six states. (Among those offices are ones in St. Louis, Crestwood and St. Charles).

Beacon: What are these new employees doing for the Census Bureau?
Johnson: The vast majority are census takers who visit households that haven’t returned forms. We also have a supervisory staff and outreach coordinators who go to fairs and other community events to hand out promotional materials. Most people haven’t started their work yet. We have about 30-40 people in each office now, and eventually we’ll have about 1,000 working in each location.

Beacon: Given the high unemployment rate, are you finding it easier this time around to find people to help with the census?
Johnson: We have found all around that there are quite a few people who need work that can be a bridge to permanent work.

Beacon: What’s the typical duration of a census gig?
Johnson: It’s about 6-10 weeks of employment on average for people going door to door. For supervisory roles it can be up to three months, or if you’re in the office up to a full year.

Beacon: When does the door-to-door work begin?
Johnson: Some forms are delivered as early as March 1, but the bulk of them are sent starting in mid-March. The census takers start knocking on doors in early May (and keep returning through July to households that haven't answered the paperwork.)

Beacon: Are the people who go door to door people who live in that community?
Johnson: It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, but we want to make sure as much as possible that if someone walks to your door they are familiar to you, or at least look like someone from your community. You’re probably more apt to talk to someone who lives in your community.

Beacon: What’s the normal rate of census form returns?
Johnson: It varies from region to region. Missouri was higher than the national average in 2000. In St. Louis that wasn’t true, though. Just over half of households sent in their form. The response rate was better in St. Louis County.

Beacon: What’s the biggest challenge in getting a complete picture of the region?
Johnson: It’s getting the noncitizens. There’s a certain fear and stigma attached to this type of process, and we have to get the word out that no information provided can be used against individuals. We try to identify someone, a trusted voice in the community, who understands the process and can pass along this message and tell people you need to be counted as part of this community.

Beacon: We recently quoted Rep. William Lacy Clay as saying that every uncounted person in Missouri will mean a 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. Is that right?
Johnson: Yes, that’s roughly what the impact is. Over a 10-year period, that’s significant money.

Beacon: What’s the timeline for finishing the process?
Johnson: We wrap up our field operation by the end of summer, and on Dec. 31 the population by state is released to the public.

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