US plans census outreach to displaced homeowners

With the 2010 census looming, tens of millions of residents in mostly dense urban areas such as Los Angeles and New York are at high risk of being missed due to language problems and a deepening economic crisis, government officials said Monday.

The challenges are creating consternation in some cities, which say time and state budgets for outreach are short.

“While the census is a federal responsibility, there must be earlier and ongoing communication and accountability to local governments and communities,” said Stacey Cumberbatch, census coordinator for New York City.

Testifying before a House panel, officials with the Census Bureau and Government Accountability Office cited high risk groups of hard-to-find immigrants, non-English speaking residents and displaced homeowners who make up roughly 14 percent of the U.S. population.

To ensure an accurate count, census officials said they were devoting $250 million from $1 billion in stimulus money for outreach that will include stepped-up canvassing of addresses to identify residences with multiple dwellers and homes now abandoned due to mortgage foreclosures.

The money will also be used to boost the bureau’s advertising budget by $80 million, of which $26 million would target the fast-growing Asian and Hispanic populations in television, radio and online spots. Another $10 million would be spent on the undercounted black community.

The money will flow mostly toward dense coastal cities that traditionally have been more racially diverse. But places such as Iowa, with its rapid growth of Hispanics, or Maine, with its sizable Somali population, will also see additional outreach, the bureau said.

“A year from now, the populace will have seen and heard more ads in national and local media than in any prior census,” said Thomas Mesenbourg, the acting census director. “Our goal for the 2010 census is to count every one, no matter how difficult or challenging the task may be.”

Other efforts planned:

– Partnerships with thousands of nonprofit groups and companies such as Wal-Mart Inc. and Target Corp.

– Coordination with schools to promote awareness among students, particularly those with non-English speaking parents.

– Blogs, text messaging and YouTube videos.

– Rapid-response and contingency funds for areas with unexpectedly low rates of residents mailing in forms.

The stakes are high since census results are used to allocate billions of dollars in government funds for schools, roads, hospitals and other vital programs. States also risk losing political clout, since the population count determines apportionment of House seats and electoral college votes.

The census has long disproportionately missed minorities. In 2000, the bureau noted for the first time an overcount of 1.3 million people, due mostly to duplicate counts of whites with multiple residences. About 4.5 million people were missed, mostly blacks and Hispanics.

California, with its double-digit unemployment, has slowing growth and could lose a House seat if its high numbers of Asian and Hispanic immigrants ? both legal and illegal ? aren’t fully counted.

In 2000, California had a state budget of $25 million to promote higher census responses, but funding is less certain this time around.

“Strapped in this economy, state governments are finding it difficult to support census outreach activities,” said Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., a member of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the census. “This makes federal dollars for outreach programs that much more critical.”

New York City faces challenges with a resident population that is more than one-third foreign born, including those of Middle Eastern descent skittish given stepped up law enforcement after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The state is projected to lose either one or two House seats.

Florida could pick up one or two seats depending on a count of residents, who have seen high rates of mortgage foreclosures. Arizona, North Carolina and Texas also stand to gain seats.

Cumberbatch noted that New York City’s response rate in 2000 to the mail-in questionnaire was 55 percent, lower than the national average of 66 percent.

“What is the process to determine ethnic media buys in local markets?” she said in testimony to a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee. “The Census Bureau needs to adopt a more formal process of convening diverse local stakeholders together.”

Robert Goldenkoff, director of strategic issues at the GAO, said many businesses that donated significant resources in 2000 for promotion may have less money to donate, while schools enlisted to promote the census may be financially burdened without additional investments.

President Barack Obama has yet to name a new census director to lead the massive head count.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.