The Complexity of Counting

Much legwork goes into getting accurate numbers for census

The U.S. Census Bureau has sent out its questionnaires. Now it wants them back. If you blow it off, census “enumerators” will begin calling on May 1—no easy feat considering that 20 percent of Americans have replaced their landlines with cell phones. They’ll call three times, and then they’ll knock on your door. Then they’ll knock on your neighbors’ doors.

Three census offices in the Valley will be employing as many as 15,000 people by the third week of April to get the heavy lifting done. The fieldwork should be wrapped in early June, and the census is due on the president’s desk by year’s end. The aggregate statistical data will be available to the public after that, though privacy laws don’t allow data specific to individual respondents to be released for 72 years after each census.

While the census doesn’t exactly scare people the way the Internal Revenue Service does, there are issues with filling the questionnaire out. There are the usual anti-government types who don’t want Uncle Sam knocking on their door asking them for anything; there are homeless to account for (the bureau employs many homeless people to help with this count); and illegal immigrants also have to be contacted. In the case of the latter, the Census Bureau is spending $200 million to advertise to Spanish-speaking communities, emphasizing that the bureau legally is forbidden from sharing information with other entities.

And foreclosures also have made it difficult to get an accurate count. “There will be some people living [in a house] but they don’t want to be found out because they’re behind on their payments,” census spokesman Leo Cardenas says. The bureau will be dealing with an estimated 40,000 empty homes in the Valley, he adds.

The Census Bureau also faces a population that is bigger and harder to define than ever before. In recent decades, the response rate to the census has hovered near 60 percent. The last census, in 2000, had one of the best returns ever at 67 percent. Good thing, too, because the legwork isn’t cheap. According to the Census Bureau, for every 1 percent of people who do not respond, it’ll cost our cash-strapped government $85 million to try to track them down.

In 2000, some Americans received a long and tedious census questionnaire. This time, to make things as easy as possible, all Americans are receiving a 10-question flier to return. But there’s still at least one point of confusion: Question 8 asks whether you’re of Hispanic origin; Question 9 asks if you’re black or white or American Indian. For many Latinos, answering yes to Question 8 would seem to invalidate the need to answer Question 9.

The questions were signed off by minority leaders, says Nic Kirmse, manager of the Census Bureau’s Henderson office. “They’ve all reviewed the questionnaire and have agreed to the terms in them. “Maybe sorting out eternal confusions of just what makes an American is part of what makes us Americans. (And rest assured, if you don’t fill out all the questions, census workers will be calling you).

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