Clovis News

Census takers expect difficult Valley count

Census forms will start hitting the nation's mailboxes in March.

Already, though, workers are scouring the Valley to ensure that those once-per-decade questionnaires get filled out and sent back instead of tossed into the trash.

The Valley is considered to be among the hardest places in the country for the U.S. Census to count. In practice, that means people here are less likely than elsewhere to send back their forms.

The reasons include high levels of poverty, high numbers of people who speak little or no English, and overcrowded and often unusual housing arrangements. The recent flood of foreclosures has only added to the problem.

That's why a team of 60 census workers has spent much of this year swarming Central California. They've enlisted local government leaders, community organizations and educators. They've dropped off countless flyers.

"We covered every business, every tacqueria, every bakery, every place that hard-to-count people would congregate," said John Flores, who is leading the effort in 13 counties across the center of California. "Food vendors, that little market that's there in Five Points, any place and every place that we thought people would go."

What happens next is open to question. At one Clovis convenience store Wednesday, clerks were unable to find any trace of a stack of flyers dropped off one week earlier.

"I don't even know what happened to them," said clerk Carole Fundel. "If we did get them out, they're gone."The two-page flyers include an introduction to the census and its purpose, an explanation of its importance, and details about what becomes of the information collected. Flores said they have materials in more than 50 languages.

The message is twofold.

First, that a person's answers to the census form are confidential by law for 72 years. That means individual answers to the 1940 census have not yet been released.

Second, that the census brings money into the community in direct proportion to the number of people it finds here.

Every person included in the count accrues another $1,000 in federal aid to the region, said Maria Gutierrez, general manager of Fresno's Univision and Telefutura television stations, which are leading a campaign to build awareness through public service announcements and other means. Gutierrez is a co-chair of the city's complete-count committee.

"The idea is to be unified in the message of how important it is to the community," Gutierrez told a recent meeting of The Bee's editorial board.

In addition to affecting awards of federal funds, the census count also will determine how many seats California has in Congress over the next decade, said Fresno City Council Member Blong Xiong, a co-chair of the city's complete-count committee.

"There is a possibility we could lose a representative at the federal level" if the census falls short of the most complete count possible, Xiong said.

But to reach that goal, the complete-count campaign will have to overcome a number of obstacles. One of the largest may be suspicion of the government, especially among recent immigrants whose legal status may be questionable.

The census wants to count them anyway, Flores said. And his staff is ready to tell them why.

"We try to approach them from the point of view that, while you are here illegally, you still have a responsibility and that's to make sure that your kids get a good education [and] that you have some medical services if in fact you do go to some of these clinics," Flores said. Answering the census helps increase funding for both, he said.

This year's questions include each resident's name, age, sex, race and ethnicity, plus a phone number and whether the home is owned outright, owned with a mortgage, or rented. Immigration status is not among the questions.

In addition to emphasizing the stakes and the confidentiality of the census, organizers also are pointing out that the upcoming census form is short - 10 questions. That compares favorably with, for example, the 1930 census, which had 32 questions, but the 2000 census form had only 7.

Missing from this census is the traditional "long form" that was distributed to one in six households nationally. Designed to yield a fuller portrait of social, economic and demographic details, the last long form had 52 questions. It has been replaced by the ongoing American Community Survey, which questions a much smaller number of households on an annual basis.

Nevertheless, the complete count campaign faces a big challenge.

California is divided into more than 7,000 census tracts with a few thousand people in each. For each, the Census Bureau has computed a "hard-to-count" score based on factors like poverty levels, language, unemployment and the prevalence of renters.

Based on those calculations, the sixth hardest-to-count tract in California includes part of downtown Fresno and the Lowell/Jefferson area just north of downtown. Moreover, most of Fresno south of Ashlan Avenue has a "hard-to-count" score high enough to indicate that census participation is likely to be so low as to be a problem.

Those areas, along with others in the Valley's smaller towns and rural areas, are where the complete count effort is concentrating its activities. The goal, Xiong said, is to produce a better return rate for census forms than the region got in 2000, which in turn was better than 1990.

In 2000, 70% of Californians responded to the census without an in-person followup visit from a census taker. But in Fresno County, only 69% did so, and in Kings and Tulare counties, only 67%.

How effective the complete count effort will be remains to be seen.

"I don't think we have a choice," Xiong said. "It's going to have to work."