U.S. census count kicks into high gear

Image: crew shoots video
Red Lake tribal leaders in Minnesota meet to coordinate events for census awareness activities as a film crew shoots for a training video. As the 2010 census drive kicks into high gear, the government is making an extra effort to reach people in "hard to count" areas, including reservations.Michael Meuers
/ Source: msnbc.com

Coming soon to a mailbox near you: the 2010 census form.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s once-a-decade population count kicks into high gear this month as the government agency sends out forms to more than 130 million addresses across the country.

The forms are due to arrive in mailboxes March 15-17. Households that don't return the questionnaires can expect a knock on the door from a census-taker between April and July.

The Constitution requires the federal government to count everyone living the U.S. every 10 years.

Census data are used to apportion congressional seats to states. Congress uses the count to distribute more than $400 billion in federal funds each year to tribal, state and local governments. That's more than $4 trillion over a 10-year period for things like new roads and schools, and services like job training centers.

"We need your help — it’s critical that you mail back your form rather than wait for a census worker to show up on your doorstep. Between $80 to $90 million in taxpayer dollars are saved for each 1 percent increase in mail response," the Census Bureau says.

The 2010 census form consists of 10 questions and officials estimate it will take only about 10 minutes to complete. All answers are kept confidential, the agency says, and won't be used against anyone.

In an effort to make sure everyone is counted, the Census Bureau has taken out paid ads in 14 languages on radio, TV and elsewhere.

It is also conducting a “Portrait of America” census road tour. Thirteen vehicles are traveling across the country from January to April, engaging audiences at events from the Super Bowl to state and county fairs, church functions and community events.

The Census Bureau also has partnered with more than 200,000 organizations across the country, from churches to community groups to corporations and Indian tribes, to help ensure an accurate count.

In "hard to count" areas, such as remote villages in Alaska and some Indian reservations, the Census Bureau also sends an enumerator out to work with the count, said Stan Rolark, chief of the Census Bureau's public information office in Washington.

Mail sometimes doesn't work
The Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians is among the organizations working with census officials to promote participation in the count. The Red Lake's 835,842-acre reservation in Minnesota is about 1½ hours away from the Canadian border and 30 miles from the nearest sizable city — Bemidji — so government officials welcome the tribe's help.

“Because we are sort of remote and not near any major metropolitan area, regular mailing addresses don’t work for us,” said Michelle Paquin Johnson, the tribe's legal adviser and co-chair of a tribal committee on ensuring a complete census count.

Reservation sign on south boundary, Hwy 89.

“We don’t have people in little postal Jeeps delivering mail. We all have to go to the post office and use our little box and our key," Paquin Johnson said. "There are no road signs for smaller streets and our houses don’t have numbers on them.”

Members of the tribal committee have been trying to raise awareness on the reservation through information booths at pow-wows, basketball games and other events. Paquin Johnson said an accurate count of tribal members is important because the tribe gets federal money and grants for such things as homeless shelters based in part on population.

"In our community we have members who live on or near the reservation. There isn’t enough housing to adequately meet their needs, and housing uses a formula based on census numbers," she said.

By the numbers
It'sa daunting task to find and reach those living in every house from Hawaii to Maine, but census officials say their publicity campaign seems to be bearing fruit.

"We think we're doing very well in terms of getting our message out there," said Rolark, who's working on his fourth census. "All indications are that people are becoming more and more aware of the census."

The Census Bureau says its job will be easier if households fill out and return the 10-question questionnaire. In 2000, about 72 percent did so.

But if the forms don’t get returned, or if workers need to check addresses, then census takers will hit the streets and knock on doors.

The government can fine people who don't answer the census up to $5,000, but that's never been done before and it's unlikely to happen this year. "We want to gather the information, that's what we want to do," said Rolark.

The 2010 count officially launched Jan. 25 in the Inupiat Eskimo village of Noorvik, Alaska, north of the Arctic Circle, where the Census Bureau began counting Alaskans in person. The agency will deliver the country's finally tally to President Barack Obama in December for apportionment.

The population in 2010 is projected to be just over 310 million.

The 2010 count is a far cry from the first census in 1790, which counted just under 4 million people in the young United States. That tally took 18 months for federal marshals to complete. When they started, there were only the 13 original colonies, but Vermont and Kentucky joined the union during the census.

Today, it takes 10 years to prepare for the next census.