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Census sends show on road to encourage accurate count

Mountain View Elementary third-grader Jenna Whitfield listens to her teacher explain the importance of the 2010 census during a field trip to visit the 2010 Census Portrait of America Road Tour. (Kathy Plonka)
Mountain View Elementary third-grader Jenna Whitfield listens to her teacher explain the importance of the 2010 census during a field trip to visit the 2010 Census Portrait of America Road Tour. (Kathy Plonka)

Ryan Eaton visited the Coeur d’Alene Public Library on Tuesday afternoon during a school field trip to learn more about the 2010 U.S. census. The kindergartener said his family’s census form arrived Monday in the mail.

“I filled it out with my dad,” said Ryan, who is 6. “We filled it out this morning.”

That’s just what census workers want to hear as the 2010 Census Portrait of America Road Tour hits the Inland Northwest this week. The traveling display is an attempt to educate the public about the importance of mailing back the questionnaires for the once-a-decade count of Americans.

“The ultimate goal is to increase the mail-back participation rates,” said Stacy McBain, a spokeswoman for the Census Bureau in Idaho. “If everybody mailed back their form, it would save $1.5 billion.”

Spokane’s census office will employ more than 1,000 workers once the census begins follow-up with households that don’t mail in the survey, said Brian Kennedy, manager of the office. Workers will hand-deliver forms to 41,000 households in 11 Eastern Washington counties, he said. In Idaho’s five northern counties, 500 to 700 people will be hired to hand-deliver forms to an estimated 16,500 households, McBain said. Census takers will visit a household as many as six times to reach someone to get an accurate count.

“It’s important for your community,” Kennedy said. “These numbers will stick with your community.”

To underscore that message, some 13 tour vehicles took to the road in January and will travel 150,000 miles nationwide. During the Coeur d’Alene stop on Tuesday, civic leaders spoke about the importance of an accurate count in funding city projects, schools, social services and health districts.

The census counts everyone living in the country and is mandated by the U.S. Constitution.

The data are used to apportion congressional seats, to make decisions about what community services to provide, and to distribute more than $400 billion in federal funds to state, local and tribal governments.

States give up an average of $1,400 in potential funding for every census form not sent in, McBain said.

“We only get one shot at this every 10 years,” said John Bruning, a Coeur d’Alene city councilman who spoke at Tuesday’s event.

“If we don’t get counted, too bad, we won’t do it again for 10 years.”

About 120 million households began receiving the 10-question forms this week, and census officials say mailing them back is most cost-effective. Mailing costs 42 cents per household, while sending workers door-to-door costs taxpayers $57 per visit, according to a census news release.

McBain wanted to assure citizens that census data is confidential. “The same Constitution that mandates that this takes place also mandates that it all remain confidential,” she said.

All Census Bureau employees take an oath of nondisclosure and are sworn for life to protect the confidentiality of the data, the release said.

The penalty for unlawful disclosure is a fine of up to $250,000, imprisonment of up to five years, or both.

Staff writer Jonathan Brunt contributed to this report.


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