2010 U.S. Census Survey Could Paint New Portrait of America

High-Stakes Census Complicated by Fears Among Latinos
Recession, Calls for Boycott Threaten Accurate Count

In less than six months, households across the country will take part in a massive nationwide survey that occurs only once every decade. This spring people from the Atlantic to the Pacific will take part in the 2010 census, part of the government's effort to paint a new portrait of the country.

But counting every person residing in the United States is no small feat. And since the results can have a drastic effect on everything from Congressional representation to the allocation of more than $400 billion in federal money annually, the process is frequently rife with controversy. The upcoming one appears set to be no exception.

In a variety of ways, though, the 2010 census will be different from surveys seen in years past, reflecting changes made by career scientists at the Census Bureau who have been preparing for this effort for the last decade.

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Most importantly, the new census form is now the shortest in history.

This year's form, the Bureau boasts, consists of just 10 questions that can be completed in only 10 minutes. And for the first time since 1930, the census is using only one form, rather than two.

Another first for the census this year is a bilingual form that will be sent to selected areas with high Hispanic populations -- around 12 million of these forms will be sent out in all. A few years ago the Census Bureau realized that a lot of non-responses in the past could be chalked up to the language barrier. And for the Bureau, non-responses can be costly: for every one percent increase in the number of people who mail back forms, the Bureau saves $80 million.

However, a recent Census analysis found that a decrease in mailed-back forms could lie ahead -- the analysis found that recent increases in government mistrust, identity theft, and foreclosure rates could lead to a 3 percent drop in the number of households that mail in their forms without visits from census takers.

In another attempt by the Bureau to boost participation, this year a replacement form will also be sent out this year to households that do not initially respond by mail.

The changes do not end with the form. Around 140,000 census workers -- hailing from communities nationwide -- last spring used handheld technology for the first time in the bureau's history as they canvassed the country to identify each residential address, in essence, compiling the most comprehensive address book the country has ever seen.

In the coming months, work will pick up. Recruitment is now under way for census takers the bureau will employ during the peak workload next year. In all, more than 1 million employees -- nearly all of them short-term and temporary -- will work to gather information to make this census possible.

Then, in January, the Bureau will launch a communications campaign to let people know the census is coming. A large chunk of the $326 million outreach campaign will be spent on media buys. Then in the middle of March, census forms will be sent to households.

On April 1 comes National Census Day, the date Americans have been told to use as a reference point for sending back their completed forms. People who do not return their completed forms on time should expect a visit from census takers sometime in April, May, June, or July.

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