On National Census Day, Government Highlights Once-a-Decade Count

You've probably gotten the form in the mail. Maybe you've seen one of the television commercials. One way or another it's a safe bet that you know that the U.S. Census is underway.

Just in case you didn't know, the government has dubbed today National Census Day, the reference date for its once-a-decade attempt to count the country's population.

"It's a snapshot of where the population is living at a particular moment in time," Census Bureau director Robert Groves said in an interview with ABC News.

Video of National Census Day at Bens Chili Bowl.Play
Ben's Chili Bowl in D.C. Welcomes Census Bureau Director Robert Groves

Over 134 million forms have been sent out to households nationwide. A $133 million advertizing blitz – including a cross-country road tour – has been going on for months. Even President Obama taped an ad urging people to participate. All part of the government's $14.7 billion effort to paint a portrait of the population.

The government's goal is to get as many people as possible to fill out and mail back the 10-question form. For every one percent increase in the number of people who mail back their forms, the government saves $85 million by not having to send bureau employees door-to-door looking for non responders.

"This is the one thing we can all do to attack the federal deficit," Groves said. "We all save money by having not to pay for the follow-up."

If everyone mailed back their census forms, the cost of the government effort would fall by $1.5 billion. And the more people get counted, the more help they'll get from the government – the census is used to allocate seats in Congress and distribute around $400 billion in federal funds.

Kansas City Mayor Cites 'Serious Sibling Rivalry'

To that end, these days you may notice everything from interactive Google maps to big-city mayors talking smack.

Kansas City Mo. Mayor Mark Funkhouser recently challenged St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay to see whose city could have the most improved mail-in rate for census forms. The wager? Beer and barbecue.

If St. Louis wins, Funkhouser will owe his mayoral counterpart a case of Boulevard Brewing Company beer and a barbecue sampler platter from a few local hotspots. If Kansas City wins, Slay will owe Funkhouser a case of Schlafly's beer and some Pappy's BBQ.

"its hometown brewery and hometown barbecue – I look at it as a can't lose!" Funkhouser said to ABC News with a chuckle. "I feel pretty confident that we're going to have the higher mail-in rate. I jumped at the idea when I heard it."

And the Kansas City mayor – citing some "pretty serious sibling rivalry" between the two cities – couldn't resist engaging in a little trash talk.

"St. Louis used to be the biggest city in Missouri and then [at] some time Kansas City became the biggest," Funkhouser cited. "After the census I think we're still going to be way out in front."

Just for good measure, Funkhouser threw in a jab at St. Louis barbecue, too.

"I can't recall that I've ever had Pappy's BBQ, so I'm looking forward to it. I can't imagine it's as good as Kansas City barbecue, but it's worth a try," he said.

On a more serious note, Groves, too, loves these types of wagers. A handful of similar bets have been made elsewhere around the country.

"Anything that keeps awareness and participation in the foreground is a good thing," Groves said. "I'm really thankful to these mayors and other political leaders who are making these bets. It's fun to do and we'll all be the beneficiary."

In another effort to boost participation, the census has partnered with Google to launch interactive maps that keep real-time tallies on nationwide response rates. Using Google Maps and Google Earth, communities can track how their area is responding.

Bachmann: Census Asks for Too Much Information

"Our job is to count everyone – we want to do it this time in a way that everyone can see how each little neighborhood in the country is doing at filling out the forms," Groves said.

To date, some areas have performed much better than others. The Midwest, for instance, currently boasts the five states with the country's top participation rates: South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, and Wisconsin.

"There are some parts of the country that are just zooming along," noted Groves.

Others? Not so much. As of March 31, the national participation rate was 50 percent, but Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, New Mexico and Alaska all had participation rates under 45 percent.

Reasons for not participating in the census vary. Some refuse to fill out the forms because they believe the government is invading their privacy. Some immigrants fear that they could be deported if they give the government their personal information.

Even in the nation's capital, the census is always a hotly debated issue, since both Republicans and Democrats alike have a lot at stake. Democrats traditionally fare well among some of the hardest groups for the census to count: young people and minorities.

One Republican lawmaker, Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota, has said that she will fill out only one part of the 10-question form and then leave the rest of it blank. She has contended that the census form asks for too much information.

"We plan to fill out in my house how many people there are in our family and send our form back in," Bachmann said recently on ABC's "Top Line". "What I don't appreciate is that the census is turning into a justification to justify evermore big government programs."

"Americans are a feisty bunch," responded Groves, "and we need to address these concerns every 10 years."

"Some of the questions that arise are of the character that we're relearning the basic lessons of how the census fits in with the rest of the representative democracy," Groves said. "We have to note that this is part of the Constitution, that the founding fathers wanted us to do this as a way to keep the House of Representatives fully in tune with the population."

With National Census Day marking the halfway point for the effort after forms were mailed out last month, the government's work is now kicking into high gear. After all, counting about 310 million people and pinpointing the place where they live is no small feat. From Google Maps to beer and barbecue bets, boosting participation is the key.

"We're coming along pretty well," Groves said. "The next few weeks will tell whether we've been successful."