Census Bureau working to calm fears

    It’s just ten questions – but they carry a lot of weight. The information collected by the U.S. Census will affect how elections are held, how federal funding will flow to schools, highways and hospitals. But many people are afraid to take part in this survey – so the Census is exploring ways to get them past that fear.

    It’s just ten questions – but they carry a lot of weight. The information collected by the U.S. Census will affect how elections are held, how federal funding will flow to schools, highways and hospitals. But many people are afraid to take part in this survey – so the Census is exploring ways to get them past that fear.

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    The Census survey seeks the same type of information people hand out all the time: getting a credit card, during a doctor’s visit, making a Facebook profile. But when it’s the government asking, some people find that scary, says Monica Davis of the Census Bureau:

    Davis: Some people simply don’t want to be found – some people don’t want people to know their basic information, where they live, their race ethnicity, background, their age.

    Suspicion of government is as American as baseball, says University of Pennsylvania political science professor Diana Mutz:

    Mutz: Levels of trust in government have never been extraordinarily high in the United States – people are understandably suspicious – how are these data going to be used.

    Minorities traditionally fear the census the most, says Mutz. Up there with them on the fear scale are people whose political opinions sit outside of the mainstream.

    In the 2000 census, 67 percent of people returned completed census forms by mail. Mutz says, that’s a great success:

    Census display at the Philadelphia Flower Show (Photo: Maiken Scott)
    Census display at the Philadelphia Flower Show (Photo: Maiken Scott)
    Mutz: Relative to most mail surveys that are sent out it’s incredibly high.

    But here is the twist. When a household doesn’t return a mailed form, a census taker is dispatched for in-person visit. That costs $57 per form.

    No wonder the Census Bureau is doing everything it can to reach out to reluctant audiences.

    Census Bureau Staff:
    “Census day is April 1st, it’s just ten questions, just fill out the form and mail it back to us”

    In Philadelphia in early March, the flower show is the place to find a big crowd. Census workers were there last weekend, handing out sample census forms and spreading the word.

    Monica Davis of the Census sums up the pitch:

    Davis:
    We tell them that 400 billion dollars is allocated annually based upon data, we tell them how the community specifically is affected, and what the community stands to gain and lose by participating in the census, or not participating in the census

    Another big message: Any information given is confidential. The U.S. Constitution says so.

    Davis: We can’t share it with the court system, we can’t share it with immigration, we can’t share it with the IRS, we can’t even share it with the Philadelphia parking authority, so the information we collect is safe.

    In Philadelphia a major effort is being made to reach out to minority communities to encourage Census participation.

    At the Philadelphia Arab American Community Development Corporation, Zeina El-Halabi says her organization has a tough job ahead:

    El-Halabi: Some of the fears are being profiled or being targeted for terror related incidents, also, the Arab community sometimes tends to be fearful of the government.

    This weekend, hundreds of Philadelphia clergy members will participate in “Census Sermon Weekend” to encourage their congregations to participate. Diana Mutz says trusted religious and community leaders are among the most effective in overcoming people’s reservations about cooperating with the government.

    Census forms are being mailed out starting on Monday.

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