Thousands of island residents will collect important census info


POSTED: Sunday, December 20, 2009

Hawaii has one of the nation's lowest response rates to the U.S. census, so the government is recruiting thousands of island residents to work as census takers and knock on doors in their own neighborhoods next year.

At stake in the official head count are millions of dollars in government funding for schools, hospitals, senior centers, roads, bridges and emergency services like fire and police. The census also helps determine political representation.

“;The census is all about power and money,”; said Marilyn Yoza, partnership specialist in the U.S. Census Bureau's Honolulu office. “;The average person doesn't care about redistricting. They do understand money. The federal government gives out more than $430 billion annually to the states, and we want to make sure we get our fair share.”;

But Hawaii residents are traditionally reluctant to respond to questionnaires mailed out by the U.S. Census Bureau. In the last census in 2000, just 60 percent of Hawaii residents returned those forms, the third lowest rate in the country, Yoza said. Only Louisiana at 58 percent and Alaska at 56 percent had less participation. The most cooperative state was Iowa with 76 percent.





        The Census Bureau is hiring workers to go door-to-door for the 2010 Census.

» Applicants sought: 20,000
        » Employees to be hired: 2,000-plus
        » Starting pay: $17 per hour, part time
        » Requirements: Age 18 and up. Must pass a written test and background check. More information, including a practice test, is available on the Census Bureau's Web site. Or call (866) 861-2010.
        » On the 'Net: www.census.gov




When a household fails to respond to the questionnaire, a census taker goes door-to-door to follow up. The U.S. Census Bureau is seeking 20,000 applicants in Hawaii for its pool of census takers and plans to hire more than 2,000 workers to walk their neighborhoods starting in March. Applicants must pass a written test and background check. The pay starts at $17 per hour in Hawaii, including training time.

“;We want very much to hire people to work in the neighborhood where they live, so that somebody coming to the door looks like them, speaks the same language and may even know them,”; Yoza said last week. “;It's real important that they live in the area where they want to work.”;

State economist Pearl Imada Iboshi said that a private company, PricewaterhouseCoopers, studied the 2000 census in each state and concluded that the final headcount was about 1.8 percent below the actual population nationwide. Hawaii had the second worst undercount in the nation, at 2.16 percent, just below Alaska, at 2.67 percent, she said.

As a result, Hawaii lost an estimated $310 million over a decade in federal funds allocated based on the census, or about $1,125 per person a year, according to estimates by the Brookings Institution, Imada Iboshi said.

Officials attribute the undercount to various factors. Some residents are wary of the government, some have language barriers, others don't realize the importance of the count for their communities. Residents in illegal living situations may fear they or their landlords could get in trouble.

But the U.S. Census Bureau is bound by law to keep all personal information confidential, with data used only for statistical purposes. No personal data can be released to any other government agency, including law enforcement, or to any individual. The penalty for unlawful disclosure is steep: up to $250,000 or imprisonment of up to five years or both.

“;We take an oath for life,”; Yoza said. “;We're not allowed to give out any information at all. ... We have to be able to have people trust us and let us in.”;

Census day is April 1.

Mandated by the U.S. Constitution, the census has been carried out every 10 years since 1790. It determines political representation, as electoral districts must be periodically redrawn to account for population shifts. It also has an impact on a huge range of services allocated based on census statistics.

“;The most undercounted group is children,”; Yoza said. “;People don't realize a newborn needs to be counted. Because in five years, if they're not counted, where's the school going to be? The count determines fire stations, police, schools, hospitals—it's used for a great deal of information.”;

The short form takes just 10 minutes to complete. For people who receive mail at post office boxes, Census workers will deliver the forms door to door. “;Be Counted”; sites will also allow people to pick up a questionnaire if they think they were missed at home, and help will be available by phone in 59 different languages, Yoza said.

“;Basically we want people to know it's easy, it's safe, it's important and everybody counts,”; she said. “;That's kind of our slogan.”;

The state and local governments have formed a Complete Count Committee to try to boost census participation, by getting the word out through government workers to the groups they serve, from the unemployed to taxpayers in general, Imada Iboshi said. Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland held a meeting Wednesday with nonprofit representatives and others to craft ways to encourage participation.

“;We have a large group of newly arrived immigrants that historically are afraid to be counted, for one reason or another,”; Chun Oakland said. “;If we have trustworthy organizations that already have existing relations with people, we need to get them involved with community outreach efforts.”;