Say cheese, America.
After gearing up since March 15, the Census Bureau on Thursday takes the official "snapshot of America" – that constitutionally mandated decennial count of every American out there. So far, about half of all Americans have been tallied, and there's still another month to get the 2010 census form in the mail before census workers hit the streets.
Here in Atlanta, a "call to action" rally to round up lagging participation included a Trinidadian-born spoken-word poet, a high-pitched gospel singer, and a rocking marching band at Woodruff Park downtown. Only 40 percent of Atlantans have mailed in their forms so far.
Thursday's rallies in places like Atlanta, Los Angeles, and New York, on top of a census-sponsored website competition between regions to help boost participation rates, hint at the stark challenges facing the government's people-counters. Those challenges range from apathy, to fear, to outright rebellion.
"If you don't mail in the form, that means we'll have to come find you," sighs Pamela Page-Bellis, senior media specialist at the Atlanta Regional Census Center.
Forms, she says, cost the federal government "pennies," but sending a census taker out costs $57 per household. The Census Bureau saves $85 million for every 1 percent of participation, Ms. Page-Bellis says. At stake is $400 billion in federal funding for schools, roads, and libraries, among other things, as well as the apportionment of congressional seats.
April 1 is the "target date" for Americans to mail in the 10-question/10-minute form, although census takers won't start roudning up the noncompliers until May 1.
So far, the Midwest has the highest participation rates. On the other hand, many urban areas will probably have trouble breaking 50 percent participation by month's end.
Homeless carpenter Frederick Brice says he filled out the form after census takers came to the Atlanta shelter where he was staying. "I believe in it," he says. "It guides how money and power trickles down to the average guy."
So why do others resist the census?
Many people simply don't understand the importance of the census and "how it affects the everyday lives of all Americans," Page-Bellis says.
Second, she says, many people worry about how the information will be used – i.e., whether it will be shared with immigration authorities, the Internal Revenue Service, or law enforcement. Absolutely not, says Page-Bellis. Only non-identifying information is disseminated, and the personal data are kept in a secure database for 72 years, primarily for genealogical purposes.
This year, census officials in Republican parts of the US are reporting that growing antigovernment sentiments may be affecting return rates. The theory is that some Americans are protesting against "Big Brother" and ignoring the census request. In Texas, the most conservative counties so far have the lowest participation rates.
“The invasive nature of the current census raises serious questions about how and why government will use the collected information,” Representative Paul recently said. “It also demonstrates how the federal bureaucracy consistently encourages citizens to think of themselves in terms of groups, rather than as individual Americans."
Efforts such as Paul's can hurt communities, Frances Deviney, director of Texas Kids Count, told the Houston Chronicle. “We've got that hard-to-count element, along with these fringe (anti-government) groups that are advocating resistance,” she said. “They think they are hurting the government. They are really hurting themselves and their communities."