(March 2000) The U.S. Census Bureau has launched an all-out assault on public indifference toward the census through a paid advertising campaign and through partnerships with corporations and organizations ranging from Wal-Mart to the NAACP. The General Accounting Office (GAO), however, doubts that the Census Bureau's outreach efforts will result in the 61 percent response rate that the bureau estimates, which is already 4 percentage points lower than the rate for 1990. And some partners are grumbling about the bureau's outreach techniques, which some feel puts the onus on them.

"You sometimes hear, 'It's not our job to do the Census Bureau's job,'" said Melanie Campbell of the National Coalition on Black Voter Participation, a Census Bureau partner representing 80 national organizations.

The Bureau's Arsenal

With a $103 million advertising campaign managed by Young & Rubicam, and partnerships with more than 35,000 community organizations, the Census Bureau is targeting hard-to-enumerate populations — racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, renters, children, and others. Estimated media spending will include $52 million for those least likely to respond, $38.2 million for those who are undecided or passive, and $12.5 million for those most likely to respond.

The ad campaign's scope is massive. According to Kenneth Prewitt, director of the Census Bureau, the Bureau will be one of the top three advertisers in the country over the next several months, behind only McDonald's and Burger King. According to partnership director Brenda August, the Bureau's partners include community advocacy organizations, civil rights groups, religious and educational organizations, trade associations, labor unions, and service organizations that have agreed to work with the Census Bureau to help make their members and communities aware of the importance of the census.

GAO Pessimism

Yet even as the outreach is entering its "motivation stage," a December 1999 report by the GAO worried about the outcome of the 2000 census. The report said the Census Bureau may be "optimistic" in estimating that 61 percent of U.S. households will complete and return census questionnaires mailed to them. The return rate in 1990 was 65 percent, but factors such as an increase in the number of single parents and the presence of more immigrants who don't speak English are apt to lower the response rate in 2000. Closely linked to concerns over the response rate was skepticism about the Census Bureau's ability to recruit enough workers or enumerators — the Bureau says it needs to fill 860,000 positions — to gather information from those who do not return the forms.

At a January press conference, Prewitt acknowledged that the Census Bureau faces "two major vulnerabilities: response rate and recruitment." Despite the Census Bureau's efforts, it's too soon to tell whether the outreach campaign will overcome these weaknesses.

Limited Partnerships

Although the ad campaign is virtually certain to make people aware of the census, the community partnerships may be the linchpin in translating awareness into action — completing and returning census forms, and working as or cooperating with enumerators.

Despite their key role, some partner organizations feel neglected. Glenn Magpantay is census project director for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York. Magpantay praised the Bureau's outreach to Koreans (who numbered 69,718 in New York City as of the 1990 Census), but decried the limited outreach to South Asians — Indians, Bangladeshis, and Pakistanis — who are even more numerous (113,046 in the 1990 Census).

Magpantay also felt that the Census Bureau's outreach to the Chinese community has not been well-targeted. "We saw a partnership specialist who speaks Mandarin and lives in Long Island, when the Chinese community that's undercounted and language-isolated speaks Cantonese and lives in Chinatown and Brooklyn. We certainly advocate everyone getting involved in the census, but we believe that resources should be spent on communities that are undercounted."

Limited funding is another concern. "We have to fundraise for every mailing we do," said Magpantay. Other groups echoed the sentiment that they are being asked to do outreach without financial assistance.

Angelo Falcon, senior policy executive with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, another census partner, criticized the Census Bureau for not supporting a bill introduced in the House of Representatives in March 1999, to authorize the awarding of grants to improve public participation in the 2000 census. The 2000 Census Community Participation Enhancement Act did not pass, in part because Prewitt did not want to involve the Census Bureau in grant-making.

Falcon believes the Census Bureau's bureaucratic structure has interfered with communication and logistics. He related an incident in Tucson, Ariz., where the local census office was opened a few doors down from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in a government building. "This could create a very negative perception in terms of people who are suspicious that there's a link between the two agencies."

Co-locating census offices with INS offices resulted from the Census Bureau's partnering with the General Services Administration, said August.

When the Census Bureau was informed of the Tucson situation, the local census office was moved.

August responded to the other criticisms by saying the statements aren't true of all 520 local census offices, and she encouraged the groups to contact her with any concerns. Asked whether she thinks the partnerships will increase the response rate, August said, "Let's hope so."

In a way, the grumbling could be proof that the system is working. Partners are identifying problems and stretching their own tight budgets perhaps because they have realized that, as Melanie Campbell said, "We have to live with the count."


Allison Tarmann is editor of Population Today.