WASHINGTON (AP) — With the launch of the decennial census just weeks away, nearly one in five people say they are not sure they will participate in the high-stakes head count, citing mostly a lack of interest but also a broader distrust of government.
A poll released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center highlights the challenges as the Census Bureau prepares to begin its tally in March. The findings come as some groups question whether the agency's $300 million outreach effort is doing enough to reach hard-to-count communities.
“The big picture message is they've got a lot of work to do in terms of informing people,” said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. He cited young people in particular, as well as those with less education and Hispanics who have had less exposure to the census or government.
Overall, 90 percent of those surveyed called the population count “very important” or “somewhat important'' for the country. Many were also familiar with the value of the census in redistributing U.S. House seats every 10 years and distributing billions of dollars in federal aid.
Still, 12 percent of U.S. residents said they were not sure if they would fill out the government form, and another 6 percent said they were unlikely to or definitely would not do so. These people were more likely to be young adults 18-29 and lower-income people.
Asked why they were unlikely to participate, more than half said it was because they were too busy, not interested or weren't familiar with the census. One-fourth cited distrust of government or concerns about privacy.
Nearly one-third said they believe the data could be used to locate illegal immigrants or said they were not certain if it could. Census director Robert Groves has repeatedly said the information would be kept confidential.
“In today's America, you can't reach everybody with one or two ads on two or three television networks,'' said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League and chairman of the 2010 Census Advisory Committee. “It is the depth and breadth, who delivers the message, where it's placed and the frequency.”
Last month, his group, along with the NAACP and the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, called for more paid advertising in black community newspapers, because blacks historically have been undercounted.
They are not alone in their complaints. The National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders is urging millions of illegal immigrants to boycott the census to protest inaction on immigration reform. The group said it appeared even less likely Congress would act on that issue after Republicans won in the special Massachusetts Senate election.
The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund says it has yet to receive government assurances that census data would be kept confidential. It plans to release a report later this month on notable gaps in outreach in communities with sizable Asian populations, such as Chicago, northern Virginia, and San Jose, California.
In response, the Census Bureau has been touting its $133 million advertising campaign, which includes television spots in 28 different languages, to convey the 10-question census form is safe and easy to complete. As the top U.S. advertiser in the coming weeks, the agency estimates it will reach the average person 42 times with slogans such as the “2010 census – it's in our hands.”
The ad campaign began this week, after the Pew poll was conducted. The survey asked people about their plans to mail in census forms but did not specifically ask whether they would respond to census takers visiting their homes.
Pew interviewed 1,504 adults by cell or home phone from Jan. 6-10. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.