Officials count on accurate Census

U.S. Census Bureau workers have already started working with local governments and businesses, as well as organizations that serve San Luis Obispo’s seniors, homeless and immigrants, to prepare for the once-a-decade count of the population.

Every resident in the country is supposed to be counted on Census Day, April 1.

The writers of the Constitution wanted the count to be the guide for allotting congressional seats, which it still is. But the stakes are high for roads, social programs and more, San Luis Obispo County officials report.

Regional Census spokes-man Dave Rodriguez said it is estimated that $1,400 per year, or $14,000 per decade, returns to the community for every person who is counted.

If there is an undercount of even 1,000 in the county, it would mean $14 million in lost highway funds, social service grants and more.

“Forms will be mailed out March 19,” Rodriguez said. “To be honest, the mail back response is very key. If we get slow numbers via mail, that’s when we will jump on the ground game and visit those addresses.”

But long before March 19 or Census Day itself, area residents will see signs of the impending count.

San Luis Obispo residents will receive word of it in their February utility bill news-letter. Other governments are expected to use similar means of notifying their residents of the importance of being counted.

Some residents of the county may have encountered Census staff on their doorsteps as early as last summer when households were being tallied so officials would know where to send forms, Rodriguez said.

And predictions are already being made.

Paso Robles may very well top 30,000 in population, according to city officials there. And Rodriguez said that Santa Maria for the first time is expected to top 100,000.

Rodriguez said Census staff is expecting to distribute forms in six different languages in San Luis Obispo County, but that it has the ability to answer any questions and provide questionnaires in 54 different languages if problems arise.

Each time the count is finished, officials worry and often later discover that some degree of hesitation on the part of some of the populace led to an undercount.

The undercount ends up being a theme throughout the Census, even though officials stress that the information is not shared with other agencies.

Michael Harmon is the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments Census contact. He said there are obstacles to overcome.

“There continues to be a certain amount of fear and antagonism over it,” he said. “People worry about government intrusion, and then there is the additional fear if you are an undocumented alien who is suspicious of government.”

One thing that will be different this year is that there will only be a short form.

In the past, while most households got the short form, approximately one out of six received a longer form that tended to give the detailed portrait of American life that makes for interesting stories involving income, sex of household head, drive time to work and more.

But since 2005, the Census has adopted the American Community Survey, where it asks questions of a smaller share of the population — approximately 1,500 a year in San Luis Obispo — to get that more detailed picture of American life.

Harmon said the annual survey is more timely but perhaps not as thorough at getting a full picture of the country.

The short form for 2010 will feature 10 questions, including how many people live in the household, what kind of home it is, phone number, name, age, etc. It also asks whether an individual is of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin and then follows that up with a question on the person’s race; there are nearly 20 choices under the race question, such as white, African-American, Japanese, Chinese, other Asian, American Indian and others.