Most Mainers should have received a 2010 census form by now. For the U.S. Census Bureau, the trick is to persuade residents to fill them out and send them back.

Maine’s overall response rate in the 2000 census was 61 percent, compared with a national average of 67 percent. Iowa topped the return rate at 76 percent. Maine ranked fifth from the bottom, ahead of Vermont, South Carolina, Alaska and Puerto Rico, which had a rate of 53 percent.

Maine’s below-average return rate is attributed in part to the state’s rural nature and high number of seasonal homes. The Portland office is preparing to hire 1,600 people who have qualified to follow up on households that haven’t returned the form. That means reaching out to immigrant communities and college students, and knocking on doors on coastal islands and at remote camps.

“The census delivers questionnaires to dwellings, not people,” Robinov said. “So we want to find any place people could live.”

Many people know that the census is a constitutionally mandated head count that happens every 10 years. The goal is to account for everyone living in the country on April 1, regardless of immigration or citizenship status.

The 2010 census form has 10 questions. They include the number of people in the household, their names, sex, race, age and date of birth. All responses are confidential and by law cannot be shared with any person or agency.

More than a data collection exercise, these tallies have real consequences. Congressional and legislative districts are based on the census count. Census data also is used to distribute federal money. Maine – a rural state with an aging population – is ranked eighth in the amount of funds it gets, at $1,924 per person. The state received $2.5 billion in federal money linked to census data in 2008, according to a recent report from The Brookings Institution. Of that, the biggest chunk by far – six of every 10 dollars – went to health care, namely Medicaid, which among other things can cover nursing home care. Maine has the oldest population in the nation, with a median age of 42.

Accurate population data is essential for receiving the proper allocation for Medicaid, as well as funding for roads and low-income housing, according to Michael LeVert, the state economist. If the population is undercounted, he said, it inflates per-capita income, which spreads a fixed amount of money over fewer people.

“That could result in us getting less than our fair share of federal funds,” he said. “That’s the message we’re trying to get out.”

But not everyone hears that message, or chooses to listen to it.

A survey by the Pew Research Center found that 12 percent of United States residents were unsure if they will fill out the census form. Six percent said it was unlikely, or that they definitely wouldn’t return it. Most said they were too busy or uninterested, but a quarter of those who declined said they don’t trust government.

That theme is echoed on the Internet. Libertarian groups, for instance, are calling for a census boycott to keep the government from collecting information they feel should be private.

In fact, the 2010 census omits the so-called long-form questionnaire that one in every six homes received in 2000. That data, which includes questions about income and education, is being pursued now in annual statistical samples done by a separate program of the Census Bureau.

The bureau has spent years planning for the impending head count.

Workers went door to door last year updating the address list that was used to mail census forms, the vast majority of which were due to arrive last week. Each address and location was recorded on a GPS-enabled computer. And because some people don’t get mail where they live, workers canvassed campgrounds, trailer parks, motels and other transient locations to build the database.

This month, workers are trying to deliver questionnaires to these dwellings. In some cases, they will travel by snowmobile, all-terrain vehicle, boat and snowshoes to reach remote homes.

Workers will leave the forms at condominiums around the Sunday River ski resort. They’ll visit coastal islands and seasonal communities, such as Frye Island, in Sebago Lake, and the cottages along Old Orchard Beach. From May to July, they’ll return to check on homes where the forms haven’t been returned.

“Maine has such a high number of cottages and camps,” said Gail Driscoll, a data services specialist with the Census Bureau. “We do a lot of checking on seasonal houses.”

Some of the hardest places to get census forms filled out are not in the woods, however, but in Maine’s largest communities.

Workers are visiting colleges this winter to get forms to students. They’ll do an off-campus blitz, too, before students leave for the summer.

Residents who don’t speak English, such as members of Lewiston’s large Somali population or the state’s growing Hispanic community, may not be aware of the census, or may hesitate to divulge personal information. The bureau is hiring workers who can speak a number of languages, as well as English, to reach out to these residents.

“It’s quite a process,” Driscoll said. “You can’t just put up a listing down at the career center. You have to go one on one into the community.”

Last week, the bureau also opened 16 assistance centers in the Portland region, where workers can help residents fill out forms that are printed in 57 languages. Other centers are being run by census offices in Augusta and Bangor. These centers are located in places where the bureau hopes to find hard-to-count residents, such as the African Culture Learning Center and the Islamic Society of Portland. At the Root Cellar in Portland, census information will be available on free food distribution days.

“We’re trying to do this with foot traffic,” Driscoll said.

 

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or

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