Local officials advocate census participation


[wpaudio url=”http://www.mycitizensnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/census-package.mp3″ text=”Mail It Back”]

Two days after census forms were due, many local residents still had not returned them, though response rates in all three towns met or exceeded national and state averages. In Naugatuck, the return rate was 61 percent on April 3; it was 67 percent in Beacon Falls and 69 percent in Prospect. The averages for the country and Connecticut were 60 percent and 61 percent, respectively.

Current figures remain significantly lower than the final tallies of 2000, a fact that is driving some officials overseeing beggared budgets to intensify their advocacy of census participation.

Naugatuck Mayor Bob Mezzo, for instance, has directed his aide, Ed Carter, to lead a census committee that aims at quelling people’s fears of the 10-question form.

“The information that we got about reasons why people don’t fill it out centered around a lot of misunderstanding and apprehension by individuals that the government was intruding on their privacy or using the information for other purposes with other agencies,” Mezzo said. “So they’ve been trying to dispel some of those myths about it.”

The New England regional census van made a stop at the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury in January. The museum held a census kickoff event, which included an interactive exhibit, to help promote participation.
The New England regional census van made a stop at the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury in January. The museum held a census kickoff event, which included an interactive exhibit, to help promote participation.

“Even if you’re a non-documented alien or something, you can fill this out and send it in,” Carter added. “At least it gives an ID. You’re not giving up personal information. It is safe; they do not share it with [Immigration and Naturalization Service] or anything like that.”

The U.S. Census Bureau is promoting a similar message, assuring visitors to its Web site that “All Census Bureau employees take the oath of nondisclosure and are sworn for life to protect the confidentiality of the data. By law, the Census Bureau cannot share respondents’ answers with anyone, including the IRS, FBI, CIA or any other government agency.”

A worker who violates the oath could be fined as much as $250,000, imprisoned as many as five years or both.

Still, response rates suggest such guarantees are not enough to eliminate the federal government’s Big Brother appearance, which is one reason why the Waterbury Census Office, one of six in the state, deployed workers to churches over Easter weekend. Some actually addressed congregations during services; others met with pastors and urged them to encourage census participation among their parishioners.

BEAC_2010_04_09_p15.qxp (Page 15)“We use trusted partners,” Waterbury Census Office Manager Dave Noone explained. “Ministers and preachers are often trusted partners. Other agencies, social service agencies, are trusted partners. They’re going to put the word out there.”

Another strategic forum is public schools. Naugatuck Superintendent Dr. John Tindall-Gibson said he and administrators met with a representative of Noone’s office about six months ago and that the regional outpost provided census-related classroom materials.

“They have targeted children as a very important part of this process because they believe if children know about it, that encourages parents to complete the forms as well,” Tindall-Gibson said.

Some 118,000 schools nationwide received Census in Schools materials, according to the Census Bureau.

In Beacon Falls, the census has been a recurring subject at public functions, First Selectman Sue Cable says. Ten years ago, the town had one of the highest return rates in New Haven County, 82 percent, a mark Cable attributes to residents’ sense of civic duty and to local officials’ ability to articulate the benefits of filling out the form.

“Specifically why it’s important is because by getting our numbers accurately, we can be appropriated more money for a variety of different fundings to help with the tax base,” Cable said. “We’re eligible for a lot more different types of grants, and that’s where we need to make sure our numbers are correct.”

BEAC_2010_04_09_p15.qxp (Page 15)Prospect’s 2000 return rate was 85 percent, tied for the highest in the county. Mayor Bob Chatfield, who has been in office during four censuses, took no credit for the figure, saying the town government has not needed to promote participation.

“I think it’s just that the people have a lot of public spirit,” he said. “They’re very aware of what goes on. And I congratulate them, and let’s go 90 percent [this year].”

According to the Census Bureau, the federal government distributes more than $400 billion of state and local aid every year, based on census data. Much of that funding is earmarked for women, minorities or low-income neighborhoods.

However, it is difficult for those groups to receive funding, if their existence is undocumented, and Mezzo is convinced that is the case in parts of Naugatuck.

“Unfortunately, we believe that we’re getting undercounts in certain areas that we believe are likely eligible for funding,” he said. “And until we increase the return rates in those areas, we’re potentially leaving funding on the table.”

As an example, Mezzo referenced the state’s Community Development Block Grant Program, also known as the Small Cities Program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Towns with populations of 50,000 or fewer are eligible to apply for funding of projects that meet one of three national CDBG objectives: benefiting low- and moderate-income persons, eliminating slum and blight or addressing an urgent need.

Based on those guidelines, the borough’s Union City section, which is a principal target of local revitalization and anti-blight efforts, seems a slam-dunk candidate for funding. But it’s not, and the mayor’s office believes Naugatuck’s 77 percent census participation rate in 2000—bested by all but seven of the 27 municipalities in New Haven County—deserves blame.

BEAC_2010_04_09_p15.qxp (Page 15)“I don’t think people just realize how much census data is used when determining grants, determining areas—it’s all based on census information,” Carter said. “And, you know, 10 years is a long time. We’re sitting here using census data [from 2000] to apply for grants now. People sit here and say, ‘Union City’s gotta be an area that’s low- or moderate-income.’ Not according to the census it’s not.”

Tindall-Gibson, chief of a school system that already plans to shutter one of its 11 schools next year and may lay off dozens of teachers to close a $1.7 million budget gap, added census data will be a critical factor that determines how much funding the district receives in the future.

“Half of our budget is grant-funded, and that’s based on per capita [income] and a lot of that is formula that is determined based on who lives [here] and what their demographic characteristics are,” he said. “So it’s very important, I think, to public schools.”

Tindall-Gibson’s claim about Naugatuck’s grant-reliance is slightly understated; of the Board of Education’s $56.1 million allocation for 2009-10, $30.9 million, or 55 percent, comes from grants.

If the values trumpeted by local officials and slogans repeated by Census Bureau advertisements—“We can’t move forward until you mail it back”—fail, Noone hopes one other motivator might not. Beginning May 1, census workers will start knocking on doors of delinquent households. If they are guests you’d rather not greet, Noone says, then it’s best to visit your post office.

“Send your form, and you will not get a visit,” he said.

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