Test Run For 2010 Census is Scaled Back, Worrying Experts

Garance Burke, AP, April 24. 2008

The Census Bureau has scaled back its dress rehearsal for the once-a-decade national head count, raising fears that thousands of soldiers, immigrants and other hard-to-reach people will go uncounted when the population survey is conducted in 2010.

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The dry run is now under way in two states, with more than a half-million households receiving questionnaires from the Census Bureau. But the agency dropped such routine follow-up practices as sending census takers door-to-door to check whether homes on the bureau’s mailing list are vacant or occupied, and dispatching workers to figure out the best way to reach soldiers on military bases.

Because the dry run helps shape the way the national head count is ultimately carried out, some politicians and demographers worry that the census will miss members of the military, inmates, homeless people, college students, migrant workers and immigrants, both legal and illegal.

Census Bureau spokesman Stephen Buckner said he is confident the 2010 count will be accurate. He said that bureau officials haven’t eliminated any crucial portions of the simulation and that the census itself will feature the usual in-person interviews.

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Unlike in past years, workers won’t be sent out to double-check whether homes are occupied, and won’t be knocking on doors to encourage residents to send in their completed questionnaires. Nor will the government test out the best time and manner to deliver thousands of forms to people living in group quarters, such as college dorms, prisons or military bases.

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“The cutbacks in the dress rehearsal will no doubt affect the accuracy of the 2010 Census,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. “The only question is how bad will it be and is there a chance to recover before 2010?”

The two areas hosting this year’s rehearsal were selected because they contain a wide variety of people living in a multitude of circumstances. The Fayetteville area includes the Army’s Fort Bragg. The Stockton, Calif., area some 60 miles east of San Francisco, residents speak dozens of languages at home. Stockton also has the highest foreclosure rate in the nation.

Prewitt—who serves as a government adviser on the census—said the data from practice runs is usually used to develop assumptions about housing vacancy rates and other conditions in the rest of the country. Without door-to-door visits, those extrapolations will be off, he said.

Also, without face-to-face contact, the bureau could have trouble understanding if its techniques are encouraging participation among immigrants, said William Frey, a demographer at the University of Michigan and the Brookings Institution.

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Buckner emphasized that the bureau has other reliable ways to verify vacancy rates, and said concern about uncounted immigrants is unfounded. The agency is working with community organizations and using the first-ever Spanish-English form, with one side in English, the other in Spanish, he said. (Census forms have long been available entirely in Spanish.)

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