(April 2009) With one year to go before the 2010 U.S. Census, what measures are being taken to ensure that Americans participate? How will technology such as handheld GPS systems be used to gather data? Why is the census so important to foundations and nonprofits? What interests and concerns does Congress have? These questions and others were addressed at a recent policy seminar at the Population Reference Bureau on the preparation, challenges, and opportunities of the upcoming census. The seminar also provided a platform for the launch of PRB's Census 2010 coverage.

The three speakers were: Daniel Weinberg, assistant director for Decennial Census and American Community Survey, U.S. Census Bureau; William O'Hare, senior fellow, Annie E. Casey Foundation; and Mary Jo Hoeksema, director of government and public affairs for the Population Association of America.

Preparing for the Census

Daniel Weinberg described the importance of census data: to apportion congressional seats, affect state and local legislative districts, and allocate $300 billion in federal funds. The census aims for a successful enumeration of the U.S. population and ensuring participation is a priority for the Census Bureau. The key to people's involvement (the Census Bureau's goal is a mail response rate of 64 percent) is the guarantee of confidentiality for all personal data for 72 years. Forms have been simplified and streamlined for the 2010 Census and the ease of participation is a central component; the mail-in form asks "10 questions in 10 minutes." Census canvassers will use handheld GPS units for more accurate notation of housing units and blocks. Weinberg also remarked that the recession is attracting a host of new staff with experience: There were 1.2 million applicants for 143,000 canvassing jobs.

A wide-reaching communication strategy will roll out over the next year with an "awareness" campaign in January and February and subsequent a "motivation" campaign. Advertisements will be produced in 18 languages with additional funding provided by the recent stimulus package.

But there are significant challenges. Increased home foreclosures mean that many families have moved and are living with friends or relatives, making it difficult to account for those affected by the recession. Apathy or fear of the government among certain sectors of the population, especially immigrants, continue to present challenges to full participation. Many people in rural areas live in "hidden" housing off the map; in urban areas, it may be difficult to determine the number of households living at a particular address due to hidden or illegal conversions of existing space into apartments or rooms to rent.

The Role and Needs of Foundations and Nonprofits

In response to the challenges of getting participation among groups, there are two key messages that foundations and nonprofits can deliver to hard-to-count populations, according to William O'Hare: The census is important and the census is safe. The latter is especially important to get low-income and immigrant communities to respond. These efforts help foundations and nonprofits as well since census data provide vital information that helps target investments. O'Hare noted a few trends since 2000 that present challenges to the 2010 Census: There are more hard-to-count groups now as immigration has increased, the housing crisis complicates residential status and data as people share housing, and there is generally less local government and foundation funding to support census awareness.

Translating Census Work to Policymakers

Mary Jo Hoeksema highlighted three areas that interest Congress in terms of the upcoming census: apportionment, leadership, and policy and management. She drew attention to the Commerce, Science, and Justice appropriation for Fiscal Year 2010, up for debate later in the summer that will have ramifications for census funding. One major question is the degree to which the $1 billion of stimulus funding toward the census will supplement or supplant FY2010 funding. Hoeksema also discussed the ongoing confirmation process for the Census Bureau director, after a prolonged period without leadership at the top. In terms of management and policy, legislation has been introduced (H.R. 1254) that would appoint the Census Bureau Director to a five-year term and make the bureau independent from the Department of Commerce. The bill has been endorsed by seven former census directors and 10 stakeholder groups; hearings will take place in the House of Representatives sometime this year.


Eric Zuehlke is an editor at the Population Reference Bureau.