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.
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.
After the Census Bureau has compiled all the information, the final report will be submitted by director Robert Groves to Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, who will deliver the final census – consisting of the total national and state counts – to President Obama by Dec. 31, 2010.
In March 2011, a full year after census forms are delivered to households nationwide, local counts will be finalized.
But before 2010 has even arrived, the upcoming census has already started to make headlines – and not necessarily for the right reasons.
Law enforcement officials are investigating the September death of a census worker in Kentucky. Bill Sparkman, 51, was found hanging from a tree with the word "fed" written on his chest.
Although the Census Bureau is an apolitical and nonpartisan agency, the census is always a politically charged issue, with controversy swirling from all angles.
Three weeks ago a Republican senator failed in his effort to exclude non-U.S. citizens from the census count that determines how Congressional districts will be apportioned among states.
The proposal from Sen. David Vitter, R-La., would likely have saved Louisiana from the loss of at least one Congressional seat, while at the same time causing other states such as Texas and California to lose a number of seats.
Last month a report from a government watchdog found that a flawed fingerprinting system could have caused the bureau to employ up to 200 workers with criminal records. Four Republican lawmakers, citing the Government Accountability Office report released Oct. 7, then wrote to Groves asking him to assure Americans that no criminals would be knocking on people's doors next year.
But the Census Bureau does use a number of security checks as they go through the process of hiring over one million people. For instance, FBI background checks are conducted on potential employees with offenses involving violence, identity theft, and voter fraud leading to automatic disqualification.
Meanwhile, some Hispanic advocacy groups have called for illegal immigrants to boycott the upcoming census if immigration laws are not changed. Leading the boycott effort is the National Coalition of Latino Clergy & Christian Leaders, headed by the Rev. Miguel Rivera. The group says it represents 20,000 evangelical churches in 34 states.
The Bureau has also received flak because the embattled community activist group ACORN was one of its many outreach partners. But in all the Bureau has more than 100,000 outreach partners, from Target to the Salvation Army, that help the census by increasing its reach into communities that are traditionally tough to count.