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Wednesday, 06 January 2010 15:43

More than population stats hinge on accurate census

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The census has been part of government since Roman times and it has the baggage to prove it. As the U.S. Census Bureau kicks off its 2010 effort, the federal agency is enlisting the help of local organizations to help communicate the message that an accurate count is crucial to the federal government and does not involve the sacrifice of personal privacy.

"It's extremely important that community organizations and local governments partner with the census so we can spread the word about how it works and what it does," Andrea Robel, community outreach coordinator for the Bureau's Charlotte office. "If a county has as few as 100 people uncounted, that's leaving millions of dollars on the table over 10 years."

Derek Roland, Macon County's planning director, has coordinated the complete count committee, which boasts participation from over 20 organizations around the county including immigrant populations. Roland said the county manager and its commissioners were adamant about supporting the census effort from the start. "Number one, it's about money," Roland said. "The census determines up to $400 billion in federal funds that come to counties each year and the more accurate our count is the more we benefit."

The U.S. Census occurs every 10 years as required by the U.S. Constitution and its aim is to count every resident, including non-citizens, in the United States. The 2010 census will be used to distribute more than $400 billion of federal money to local institutions. B.J. Wellborn, media team leader for a five-state U.S. Census Bureau office based in Charlotte, is in charge of coordinating the public relations effort in an area that includes rural Western North Carolina. The Census Bureau launches a 2010 Census Road Tour this month, which will visit Franklin in March. The Road Tour will communicate the importance of the census directly to the public.

"It's really an attempt to get around the state and visit neighborhoods, particularly neighborhoods in which we may have had a hard time getting accurate numbers in the past," Wellborn said.

During the road tour, an interactive bus featuring exhibits that show the history and significance of the census as a part of American democracy, will visit communities across the country. The U.S. Census Bureau has also undertaken a paid ad campaign that will begin airing in January. For most residents the U.S. Census consists of a 10-question form that comes in the mail. But in rural areas, where people often only have a post office box or an off-site mailbox, the response to mailed surveys can be difficult to guarantee. Wellborn said the last U.S. Census boasted the best numbers ever and she expects even better accuracy this year. Still, she acknowledged the importance of local partnerships with local governments in Western North Carolina.

To that purpose Andrea Robel, the Bureau's outreach coordinator, has gotten the help of county government to create "complete count committees" capable of leading a local, grassroots information campaign. Complete count committees have been established in Swain, Jackson and Macon counties. Haywood County elected not to form a local county committee citing budget restrictions. The job of the committees is basically to reach out to their constituent groups and urge people to mail back the census questionnaire in a timely fashion.

The census does not record tax or social security information and the laws that govern the census prohibit any proprietary information from being released. Still, the public perception that the government uses the census to get in people's business is hard to shake. Census questionnaires will be mailed in March. In April, the hard work of counting people who haven't responded begins.

That's where the local groups can really help the effort, according to Robel. The Asheville census office, which serves 11 counties in North Carolina and Tennessee, expects to hire between 900 and 1,000 local people to go door to door to addresses that have not responded to the survey. The canvass workers will be hired in their home counties and must pass a basic test and fill out an online application to get hired. Support from the local count committees will help residents understand the importance of responding to the questionnaire and make the census a success across the board. Historically undocumented immigrants and rural people without mail service are least likely to respond.

Those interested in census jobs can find application information at www.2010censusjobs.gov or by calling 866.861.2010.  The information is also available via the Employment Security Commission or JobsNOW.nc.gov.

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