States Launch Census Outreach Efforts

By: - April 22, 2009 12:00 am

(Updated 2 p.m. EDT, April 30, 2009)

With the 2010 Census a year away, some states already are bracing for the nationwide head count that will decide their share of U.S. House seats and billions of federal dollars. The new population numbers also will be used to redraw state legislative districts.

Determined to get every resident counted, states are launching Web sites and committees to spread the word to residents, including hard-to-count groups. Illegal immigrants, afraid to fill out their surveys for fear of deportation, and transient families, displaced by home foreclosures, present new challenges to outreach efforts.

Population projections estimate that next year’s count will shift some House seats from states in the Northeast and Midwest to states in the South and West, according to a recent study by Election Data Services, a political consulting firm based in Virginia. The total number of representatives, 435, will not change.

The Census results also will determine states’ share of federal funds.

“There are a lot of (federal) programs, which are based on census data formulas, and the better count that we can get means we’ll have more federal dollars coming back to us,” said Ditas Katague, who is directing California’s Census efforts for 2010.

Mandated by the U.S. Constitution, the Census determines the country’s population every 10 years. Starting next April 1, the federal government will collect demographic information on the more than 300 million U.S. residents. Households that do not answer Census surveys are visited by federal workers.

Nine states -Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas and Utah – stand to gain U.S. representatives in the upcoming Census. Texas could gain the most: four additional seats. The state’s rapid population growth can be attributed to low death rates and a relatively young population with high birth rates, the result of a burgeoning Hispanic population, said Texas state demographer Karl Eschbach. Immigration from other states and foreign countries has contributed to its growth as well, he said.

Redistribution of electoral votes, determined by a state’s total congressional representation, could affect President Obama’s reelection campaign.

“A lot of (electoral votes) will be going to states which are more Republican in nature than Democratic. It will certainly have an impact on the presidential election of 2012,” said Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services.

On the other side, 12 states – California, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania – are in danger of losing representation.

About 85 percent of federal grants to state and local governments are distributed based on Census formulas. Every year, state, local and tribal governments get about $300 billion in federal funds, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates, for services ranging from health care to law enforcement. The federal government is also using population counts to hand out stimulus money.

A small margin of error or undercounting can amount to significant reductions in federal funding and representation. Utah, for example, fell 80 people short of securing a fourth U.S. House member during the 2000 Census; the seat went to North Carolina instead.

Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D) this month signed an executive order creating a state panel to maximize the number of residents counted in the Census; Strickland also unveiled a Web site aimed at educating the public on Census procedures and addressing privacy concerns. With a declining population, Ohio could lose two seats in the House after this count, the most in the country, according to the Election Data Services study.

In Florida, which could gain one House seat, Gov. Charlie Crist (R) in February created a similar committee, which enlists the help of at least 44 organizations including media, advertising, business and faith-based groups to put out information. The committee also has a bilingual, Spanish-English Web site to educate the public on the Census’ importance.

Massachusetts also created a Web site including a countdown of seconds until the Census, as well as historical facts from the more than 210-year history of the population survey.

In Utah, which is expected to gain one seat, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (R) is urging local governments to create their own “complete count committees” to encourage their neighbors to participate. A statewide committee is being planned, said Juliette Tennert, Utah Director of Demographic and Economic Analysis. New York City recently planned a similar committee.

Despite the states’ best efforts, a number of challenges face Census-takers.

Undocumented immigrants sometimes fear the Census will be used for deportation, which is illegal under federal law . No authority – including the White House, U.S. Supreme Court, Internal Revenue Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service, police, military, and welfare agencies – can obtain personal identifiable data from the Census Bureau.

“We’ve always been fighting fear of filling out the form, or apathy,” Katague, director of California’s Census outreach efforts, said.

Some members of the Latino community are now actively opposing participation in the Census. The National Coalition of Latino Clergy & Christian Leaders on Sunday (April 18) began promoting a nationwide boycott of the Census by illegal immigrants, which represent an estimated 30 percent of their church membership. Officials hope the boycott will encourage immigration reform.

“As Americans, it is clear that we must remain vigilant in the protection of our civil liberties, as leaders of the church, it is our responsibility to protect the members of our churches and until we are certain that breaches of confidentiality against racial and ethnic minority groups are not repeated, we will not urge the most vulnerable members of our congregations to come out of the shadows and voluntarily report their personal data to the Census Bureau,” said Rev. Miguel Rivera in the group’s press release.

The recession is another hurdle for states.The staggering rise in foreclosures makes counting residents more difficult. Families and individuals displaced after losing their homes often become transient and live in rented spaces, group housing or mobile homes – all major deterrents to returning the mailed survey, according to the Census Bureau.

Nevada, Arizona, California, Florida, and Illinois, all states on the cusp of gaining or losing representative seats in the upcoming Census, have the nation’s top five highest rates of foreclosure, according to The RealtyTrac U.S. Foreclosure Market Report for the first quarter of 2009.

“The recession mess and the foreclosure mess are really changing the dynamic of population movement in the country,” Brace said.

The costs associated with state outreach efforts also can present problems for states facing budget gaps.

During the 2000 Census, California spent nearly $25 million in outreach efforts, including an expansive media campaign targeted at minorities.

Though California stands to lose a seat in next year’s Census, the state’s budget crisis has made large scale state-funded outreach activities impossible, according to Kratague. At a time when population-based funding is most needed, a soaring foreclosure rate of one per every 58 housing units further increases the likelihood of undercounting.

In Utah, “budgets are really tight right now, so we don’t have a specific appropriation (of outreach funds) at the state level, but we’re working on a grassroots effort using nonfinancial resources,” Tennert said.

The federal government already has begun spending an estimated $15 billion on counting and processing costs, making the 2010 Census the most expensive census in American history. The average cost for collecting information from each housing unit has risen more than 600 percent since 1970, from $14 to an estimated $100, while survey response has dropped steadily from 78 percent to 64 percent.

Given the economy and these rising costs, some states are counting on a share of $1 billion for outreach in the federal stimulus package.

“Ohio intends to advocate for a share of these resources to support state and local efforts,” said Allison Kolodziej, deputy communications director for the Ohio governor’s office.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.