Myths and falsehoods about the census have long played a role in people’s reluctance to participate.
But with questionnaires for the decennial survey about to go out in the mail, U. S. Census Bureau officials remain focused on getting the word out that the March 15 count will be legitimate.
They are also emphasizing that the country cannot fairly distribute $400 billion in federal funding over the next 10 years unless residents complete the forms and mail them in.
Despite their efforts, some community members still have their doubts. Southeast District resident Sandy Marshall said she’ll fill out the form but has concerns about what will be done with the information or about people coming to her front door.
“I intend to fill out the form and get it back to them,” Marshall, 38, said. “But you still have to wonder.”
Michael Cook, the Bureau’s acting chief for decennial media relations, said the Census wants to “hit the African-American community hard” with the fact that if they mail back their forms, no one will visit their home.
“During a focus group study, the one thing that clearly stood out was that the African-American community tends to frown on someone knocking on their door,” Cook said.
In response to Marshall’s concerns, a spokesman for the NAACP Washington bureau offered that there is a level of distrust with data collected by the government.
“We have not had the best of experiences with the U.S. government, and it is certainly understandable that people would be leery of sharing information that’s collected in the census,” Hilary Shelton said. “But it is important for the African-American community to know that the information they provide, by law, cannot be distributed to any other government agency.”
For instance, if a person is worried about not having paid taxes, the Census cannot share that information with the IRS, Shelton said. If a person is worried about outstanding arrest warrants or any other personal information, the Census is restricted from sharing that as well.
However, legitimate Census workers will carry easily recognizable official identification cards to help differentiate them from tricksters. They will only visit those households that have not responded by April 1.
Cook added that because scams may exist, it’s even more important to make the public aware of his agency’s operations.
“Our job is to constantly promote the census and educate people about what our processes are, so that they’re armed with that information,” Cook said. “If somebody tries to do something above and beyond what we normally would do, they can determine that it’s not us.”
Cook said forms received in the mail contain “the real information” and that if residents receive “something questionable” they can go online at the Census Bureau (2010Census.gov) and see exactly what the form looks like.
Additionally, there’s a census road tour, he said. “And residents can go to our Web site and see where our vehicles are located and where they’re traveling,” Cook said of the host of interactive kiosks that will be posted at locations across the country. “Residents can visit them to see the rationale behind why questions on the form are being asked.”
He also said that many immigrants, such as those from the Caribbean, are accustomed to population counts that are completed by someone knocking at their door.
“In 2000, there were numbers of folks in highly-urbanized areas like New York City who filled out their forms but were waiting for people to come knock on their doors,” Cook said. “So we’re trying to educate people that in the United States, our Census is a mail-out, mail-back program.”
Meanwhile, myths continue to surround the census. They include that information will be given to the immigration and naturalization service, and that the forms are too long and ask too many personal questions.
In reality, the agency is only interested in statistical information that also takes into account housing and social economic data. Also, the form has just 10 questions that take just 10 minutes to complete.
Others believe filling the census form is optional. But according to the Census Bureau, United States code requires persons receiving a form to fill it out truthfully and return it. The code also stipulates penalties for failing to do so.
The way Sylvia Ballinger, a Census coordinator for the District of Columbia, sees it, “The 2010 Census isn’t about myths.”
She told the AFRO that over the next several weeks the thrust is about residents’ participation.
“This week every household received an advance letter, because we found through our research that these letters increase the participation,” Ballinger said. “It’s important to know that about $85 million is saved for every 1 percent in the mail participation rate, therefore we’re asking that when people get their questionnaire, that they simply take the 10 minutes answer the 10 questions and mail it back.”