Thursday is Census Day, the once-per-decade occasion when the nation poses for its group photo.
In reality, though, the head count started earlier this month, when 120 million U.S. households got census forms in the mail. Almost half already have returned them.
Now, said Anthony Muñoz, manager of the bureau's central Fresno office, census workers are scrambling to count millions who don't actually live in households. Among others, those include college students in dormitories, residents of nursing homes, prisoners and homeless people.
In addition, the bureau is getting ready to send duplicate questionnaires to residents of areas that have been deemed "hard to count" because of factors including language, poverty and low return rates in previous censuses. And a month from now, hordes of census workers will be poised to visit households that still haven't returned their forms.
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"We will hit the ground May 1 and start enumerating and try to get all the questionnaires filled out," Muñoz said.
The Census Bureau says it spends $57 to send a worker out to a household, but only 42 cents if the household returns its form by mail.
As a result, the bureau estimates that every percentage point increase in the national return rate saves the government $85 million.
In the 2000 census, about 72% of households returned their forms without follow-up visits.
So far this time, with a month to go before follow-ups begin, about 46% of U.S. households have returned their forms. California is below the national average at 44%.
Central San Joaquin Valley counties, on average, are in the same range as the state average, but the average conceals wide variations.
Not surprisingly, some of the region's lowest return rates are in areas with high poverty rates and large numbers of non-English speakers.
Orange Cove is below the county average at 39%. But City Manager Alan Bengyel said city officials are confident residents can improve on that before enumerators start their follow-up visits.
"Hopefully, we'll get a good turnout," Bengyel said.
"Cities really need the money that comes from the census."
More than $400 billion in federal funds are shared with cities and counties each year on the basis of population as determined by the census.
So far, Huron has the lowest return rate in the four-county area at 26%. Kingsburg is highest at 54%. Other high-ranking cities include Exeter, Reedley and Clovis, while Avenal, Parlier and Mendota are among the stragglers.
Disparities in return rates also are visible within cities.
Parts of northwest Fresno have return rates of 60% or higher, whereas rates in southeast Fresno are as low as 31%.