January 17, 2010

The tally of U.S. residents will affect every one of us

Two months from now, you will have received a very important piece of mail from Uncle Sam: The 2010 census questionnaire, that once-a-decade survey that is used to not only to determine the nation's population but also to divvy up everything from congressional and legislative seats to billions of dollars in federal funds.

This year's census will be one of the easiest for residents: The questionnaire itself is one of the shortest and simplest ever, taking 10 minutes or less to fill out and place in the postage-paid return envelope.

But this year's census also will be one of the hardest for those in charge: The economic upheaval and other factors make getting an accurate count extremely challenging. Arguably nowhere will that challenge be greater than here in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

And, as detailed in Bee reporter J. N. Sbanti's story last Sunday and again today on this page, an inaccurate count could cost Stanislaus County a fortune in lost federal funding over the next 10 years.

We see concerns and challenges in some specific areas:

1. The economic turmoil: As we reported earlier, over the past 3½ years, more than 17,500 homes in Stanislaus County were lost to foreclosure. Census 2010 must find out where the occupants of those homes are. Did they leave the area, move in with other families, or what? And since the census packets are delivered to addresses, not individuals, the forms that go to unoccupied dwellings will remain blank.

2. Distrust of government: Many residents have come here from countries where the government cannot be trusted; as such, there is a general reticence to fill out government forms. Ethnic organizations such as the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials are working to assure people that the personal information collected is kept secret, including from other government agencies.

3. Partisan protests: In this era of extreme political polarization, some groups are discouraging their members and people in general from completing the census questionnaires as a protest against the positions, programs and policies of those in power.

4. Language and literacy: Nearly 40 percent of Stanislaus County's 500,000-plus residents speak a language other than English. And while the census forms are available in six languages, many of our residents are functionally illiterate in terms of reading English or their native language.

5. Local emphasis and organization: Unlike 10 years ago, Stanislaus County does not have its own census center. Instead, we're tacked on to San Joaquin County. Hopefully the officials based in Stockton will focus as much on Stanislaus as they do on San Joaquin County.

While the plan is for every community to have a census committee to ensure a complete count, we're especially concerned that with the census only two months away, Modesto and Turlock are the only Stanislaus communities that have such committees.

6. Communication: We haven't seen much in the way of educating residents. But as mid-March approaches, we're hoping to see more in terms of billboards, public service announcements on TV and radio, fliers sent home from schools, and, in this day and age, everything from Facebook postings to Tweets.

7. Bad habits: Some people tend to not check the mailbox very often. Some tend to almost automatically discard or shred junk mail -- or things that might look like junk mail. And some tend to quickly scan the mail, set it aside, and then forget about it.

Census 2010 is important; it's up to all of us to make sure we do our part to ensure a complete and accurate count.

10 reasons to complete the census

1. It's your civic duty as a member of the community, the state and the nation.

2. There's money -- big money -- at stake. The census count is used to distribute government funds; in 2008, that was $1,674.22 per person in California. If 1,000 people aren't counted in this census, Stanislaus County will lose nearly $1.7 million per year in state and federal funds. If 10,000 aren't counted, that's nearly $17 million per year. Multiply that by 10 for the number of years until the next census, and you realize what's at stake.

3. There's political representation at stake. The census data is used to set boundaries for a host of districts, including Congress, the state Assembly and Senate, county supervisor and various local governing boards.

4. The data gathered paint a picture of our community. Besides being interesting, it's important data that can be used to identify issues, advocate for causes, address health concerns and make a host of other social, economic and political decisions.

5. It's easy. The census form is one of the shortest in history; its 10 questions should take no more than 10 minutes to answer. And they're simple: number of people living at the addresses, names, gender, birth dates, ethnicity and race, telephone number and such.

6. Other than time, it doesn't cost anything. The packet includes a pre-addressed, postage-paid envelope to send in the completed return.

7. It's safe. The individual personal information you supply is limited -- for example, Social Security numbers, employment status, family income, citizenship status and such -- aren't requested or required. And what you do give -- name, gender, age, ethnic/racial and such -- is protected, and not made public for 72 years, at which point it is turned over to the National Archives and made available for genealogical research.

8. You're required by law to complete the census; refusing to do so can result in a fine of up to $5,000.

9. If you don't fill out and return the form, sooner or later there'll be a knock on your door. The Census Bureau follows up with a physical visit to addresses that do not respond to the mailed survey.

10. It's your civic duty as a member of the community, state and nation.

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