Getting it right

Our view: An accurate 2010 census count is crucial to Baltimore's urban renaissance and to ensuring fair representation for communities all across Maryland

April 04, 2010

With the April 1 deadline already passed for citizens to complete the census questionnaires sent out by the government earlier this year, only 45 percent of Baltimore City households have filled out the forms and mailed them back. That's the lowest percentage of returns of any jurisdiction in the state, according to the Census Bureau, and even worse than the 2000 census, when slightly more than half the city's households had responded by this time.

Although for technical reasons it's difficult to make direct comparisons with previous counts, the drop-off in returns this year should be sounding alarm bells for a city government facing a $120 million budget shortfall and the prospect of painful cuts in municipal services. At this point, officials ought to be thinking about redoubling their efforts to encourage residents to participate because in addition to determining Baltimore's political clout in Annapolis and Washington during the next decade, millions of dollars in state and federal aid to the city are riding on getting an accurate count.

Baltimore isn't alone, of course, in its effort to tally up as many residents as possible this year. The Census Bureau reports only about half the nation's households have mailed in completed questionnaires so far, and some cities have registered even lower return rates than Baltimore's -- 37 percent in New York, for example, and only 29 percent in Newark, N.J. Neighboring Washington, D.C., where 47 percent of residents have responded so far, has had only slightly better luck than Baltimore.

As always, the hardest groups to reach are the poor, single young adults without children -- they're more likely to move around and thus are harder to find -- and non-English-speaking and immigrant populations. Advocates for the latter are significantly more visible this year -- in addition to Hispanics, there are outreach groups for Arab-Americans, people of Southeast Asian descent and a host of other previously undercounted demographics. At the same time, however, the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment over the last decade has made many recent arrivals fearful of cooperating with census takers, even if they are in the country legally.

Overcoming that kind of mistrust is the biggest obstacle facing city officials who are trying maximize Baltimore's political and economic leverage through the census process. No one wants to see a repeat of 2000, when the city was forced to challenge the census results in court, alleging the bureau had undercounted its population by thousands of residents -- ultimately all to no avail.

Far better to make every effort to get it right the first time, and Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake is right to encourage all city agencies to get the word out for residents to return the forms, especially firefighters, who are among the community's most trusted public servants. In the current economic climate, the city needs claim every dollar it is entitled to on the basis of its population in order to sustain and strengthen the urban renaissance on which its future depends. Although the census count may mean the most to Maryland's biggest city, it's important for residents of other jurisdictions to mail back their forms, too.

Population shifts since 2000 will mean a realignment of political power in Maryland when the state draws new legislative district lines, and the same will happen within the counties for council seats. The city of Bowie also has a major stake in an accurate count -- certain federal aid goes automatically to cities with a population of greater than 50,000, and Bowie is right around that magic number.

If none of that motivates you, consider this: If you don't send back your form, someone from the government will come to your house to verify who lives there. The Constitution mandates an actual enumeration of every person living in the country, and the government goes to great lengths -- and expense -- to conduct one. It costs the Census Bureau an average of $57 for each response they get in person, and 42 cents for each response they get in the mail. The census takers won't hit the streets until sometime in May, so you still have time.

The questionnaire, the shortest in decades, takes 10 minutes to fill out. It's important to your community, it contains no intrusive questions, and your answers are confidential. There's no excuse not to mail back your form.

Readers respond

Being under-counted is not a bad thing. With horrifically terrible representatives like Elijah Cummings and John Sarbanes, with any luck we'll lose those two House seats to Texas or Florida. I wish those two had a mind of their own instead of going with the typical party line voting. I wish they actually thought about the people they represented instead of the next kickback.

Phillip

It contains no intrusive questions?

I beg to differ. They don't need my phone number.

Goober Natorial

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