About 45 percent of Baltimore households had mailed back census forms as of Wednesday evening, the lowest total for any state jurisdiction, despite an aggressive campaign by city officials to improve upon the traditionally dismal return rate.
Baltimore's mail-in response during the last census in 2000 was 53 percent, the second-lowest total after Newark, N.J., (46 percent) among cities with similar populations and 14 points behind the national average, according to the Census Bureau.
After census questionnaires went out two weeks ago, Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blakeurged city agencies to get the word out about completing the census. Fire Chief James S. Clack has asked emergency responders and firefighters to encourage residents during calls for service to return census forms.
"City residents trust their firefighters, and they are already out serving the community every day. It just makes sense," Rawlings-Blake said.
She added that at this point, Baltimore is on par with comparable cities, like Washington, which has a 47 percent response rate. Newark continues to have one of the nation's lowest returns this year, at 29 percent.
John T. Willis, who is leading the city's census efforts, said he is content with Baltimore's standing. He said he will continue to track the city's numbers against the state's return rate and other urban areas.
"We're ahead of Philly. ... Last time, we were at the bottom, and now we've moved up to the middle," Willis said. "You can't expect an urban jurisdiction with so many hard-to-count residents as we do to be like Howard County."
City officials are also teaming with the state's Department of Human Resources, whose workers are asking those seeking services at one of the city's eight centers to complete the questionnaire. DHR staff is including a reminder in outgoing voice mail messages and estimates that they're reaching about 50,000 city residents.
"This is really a fiscal issue for the city, as the census count determines future funding levels for federal and state grants," Rawlings-Blake said.
Response rates are faring better in the surrounding counties, with Howard at 58 percent and Anne Arundel and Baltimore at 57 percent. Carroll County's 65 percent response rate is by far the highest in the state, followed by Harford County at 61 percent.
Nationally, about half the country's residents have responded to the census.
Officials from the Census Bureau say the numbers this year are likely to be higher than at this point in 2000 because of a change in the method of calculation. A spokesman for the Census Bureau said the new rate includes only the percentage of forms mailed back by households that received the questionnaires. The previous method included households whose forms were returned by the Postal Service as "undeliverable" in the response rate.
The change was made, officials say, to take the high number of foreclosed homes into account.
Baltimore officials began preparing for the census a year ago and have identified three groups to focus on for improving the response rate: residents who are economically disadvantaged; residents who are single, have no children and frequently move; and non-English speakers. Census workers will begin canvassing the state next month, contacting residents who have not returned forms.
The city receives at least $2,500 in federal funding per resident each year based on population data, city officials say, which is why they are pushing hard to make the count as accurate as possible. The 2000 census put Baltimore's official population at 651,154.
Census figures are used to help allocate $400 billion a year in federal funds and determine the number of seats each state gets in Congress. Statewide, about 51 percent of Maryland households have returned the forms.
"We're being more aggressive than in the past because we have the technology now," said Democratic Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Baltimore County. He joined Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth for a rally at a senior center in Randallstown in preparation for today's Census Day. "If we get the appropriate count, we will get $57 billion in Maryland over the next 10 years," Ruppersberger said.
Census officials are hosting a rally in Washington today and are asking those who have not returned forms to fill them out and put them in the mail.