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Census Pushes Americans’ Participation as Deadline Looms

March 31, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As the deadline for the 2010 census nears, Jim Lehrer talks to U.S. Census director Robert Groves about the challenges of counting the U.S. population and the trends the new data might show.
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight: counting heads in the United States of America.

The official U.S. census forms are due in by tomorrow. And the results really do matter. They determine distribution of hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding, as well as congressional redistricting, among other important things.

The Census Bureau has launched a big effort to get everyone to participate.

And the person in charge of that is the director of the Census Bureau, Robert Groves.

Mr. Director, welcome.

ROBERT GROVES, director, U.S. Census Bureau: Great to be here.

JIM LEHRER: Where are you now, how far along? What’s the response…

ROBERT GROVES: Well, we have various operations.

We’re in the middle of our biggest, and that is mailing out to about 120 million households individual forms. So, most — the vast majority of households have referred those forms at home. And we have asked people to fill them out and mail them back as soon as they can.

April 1, as you noted, is a special date for us. It’s a date where we want people to think of what their household composition is. For those who have pretty stable households, you could turn in the form early, and know who is going to live there on April 1.

If you’re expecting a new baby or if someone is close to death, we ask you to wait until April 1 to — to make sure the right people are counted in the right place. We’re actually going to wait for about two more weeks after that. You still have a chance. If you haven’t turned yours in, you still have a chance to mail them in for a couple more weeks.

JIM LEHRER: How — how far — how many — what’s the percentage that you’ve got in so far?

ROBERT GROVES: As of just a few minutes ago, we ended our meeting, and we’re at 52 percent of the occupied households, our estimate, having turned them in. About 62 million households have returned their forms. It’s great.

JIM LEHRER: So, over two — with two weeks still to go, that’s when you’re going to — you’re going to — you’re going to count anything that happens in the next two weeks as having met the deadline.

ROBERT GROVES: That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: How much — how much more do you expect to go?

ROBERT GROVES: We’re hoping that we’re sort of — that we have 25 or 30 percent more that might be coming down the pipeline. We have a set of operations over the next few days that are trying to improve that rate.

Starting as early as tomorrow, there will be a set of households that will get a replacement form, in case they just put it aside, kind of lost it. We have gotten some calls. People, they have lost their form.

Those areas will get a replacement form, sort of a second chance for them. And — and they — we will cut that off about April 22, when we will cut off the mail returns. And then we begin a whole ‘nother process. Since we have to count everyone, we will hire people to go out to the houses that didn’t return the form and interview people in person.

JIM LEHRER: And how many people are involved in that operation?

ROBERT GROVES: That’s a massive operation. We will hire — there are about 700,000 jobs that will be involved in crew leaders and individual enumerators who will be out on the streets of the United States doing that work.

JIM LEHRER: And they literally knock on people’s doors, right?

ROBERT GROVES: That’s right. They have a list of all the houses, the addresses that didn’t mail back the form, and they will knock on those doors. They won’t be knocking on the doors of the folks who turned it back in.

There’s a money story to be told connected to this thing. At an individual level, if you choose to fill out your form and mail it back, that costs us taxpayers about 42 cents. If not, since by law, we have to count everyone, we will send someone out. That costs about $60 per household.

JIM LEHRER: For somebody to go to the door and do that?

ROBERT GROVES: Absolutely. We have to train them. They have to travel out. They have to repeatedly call. So, there’s a great incentive for all of us to — to fill it out and mail it back.

JIM LEHRER: So, why haven’t they all done it? Why haven’t they — why doesn’t everybody do it?

ROBERT GROVES: Well, we — we are a busy lot here in the United States. All of us think that we’re working harder and that we were busier than we used to be. Whether it’s true or not, it doesn’t matter. We certainly believe that.

So, part of it is, I’m — you know, they — all of us tend to get a form and sort of put it aside and say, I will get to it over the weekend or something like that. A lot of it is just that — that kind of putting — procrastination, putting things off.

We do know there are other causes of this as well. And we have worked on some of those with this 2010 design. One of them is language barriers. We have a new set of immigrant groups. They bring with them a lot of different language from their native cultures.

We have a lot of language-assistance guides that are trying to attack that problem. This is a census done in 59 different languages, believe it or not. The L.A. school system have kids — has kids that speak over 120 different languages. So, we have to be language-sensitive.

JIM LEHRER: Is it immigration-neutral? In other words, does that census data — if there is an illegal immigrant behind one of these doors that somebody knocks on, will you turn them in?

ROBERT GROVES: Not at all.

In fact, there’s a wonderful story from history about this. The first — you know, the census is specified in the Constitution, way up there at the beginning, Article 1, Section 2. We’re going to count ourselves every 10 years in a manner that Congress shall direct.

The very first Census Act, March 1, 1790, said, we’re going to count everyone. We’re going to count them whether they’re citizens or not. And then the 14th Amendment just nailed that down.

We don’t even ask whether you’re a citizen on this questionnaire. We don’t know whether you’re a citizen. We don’t care. Following the mandates of the founding fathers, every 10 years, we have counted everyone who lives here. And that’s what we’re going to do.

JIM LEHRER: Just who lives here, doesn’t — that’s what you want to know.

ROBERT GROVES: Absolutely. If you live here, you’re eligible, and you should participate in the 2010 census.

JIM LEHRER: But, as a practical matter, through the — through the — through the years, every 10 years, you don’t really get everybody, do you?

ROBERT GROVES: Well, let me tell you what we do. We — we have developed, over the summer of 2009, a list of every address in the country. We have gotten all the commercial lists. We have worked with local leaders, local officials to get their lists, utility lists and everything.

And then, in summer of 2009, we had 150,000 people who walked every street in this country, street by street, writing down every housing unit. We have mailed to those housing units or we will visit those housing units.

We will get a determination of who lives in every one of those housing units. If you mail it back and — if you fill it out and mail it back, that’s the cheapest way we will do it. If not, we will go out and get the information on site.

JIM LEHRER: So, you think you will get, what, in the 90 percent, when it’s all said and done?

ROBERT GROVES: Well, in the year 2000, an estimate — one estimate is that we missed maybe 1.4 percent of the population. But even knowing that well is a hard thing. How do you know?

JIM LEHRER: How do you know you…

ROBERT GROVES: Yes…

JIM LEHRER: Right.

ROBERT GROVES: … which — you need something even better.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, underline what I said at the very beginning, how important these numbers are.

ROBERT GROVES: Well, these numbers, I think of these numbers as the information infrastructure of the country, just like roads and bridges are the infrastructure for transportation.

They affect almost every day of every person’s life — not visibly. They’re not in our face every day. But we can’t live our life without this. So, the constitutional basis is one. There will be shifts in number of representatives in the House of Representatives come December.

JIM LEHRER: Redistricting based on census figures.

ROBERT GROVES: At — by December 31, there’s a real hard deadline for us. We have to submit to the president and to the country counts by states. And there will be movement of representative counts there. And then the states take over, and they start redistricting, OK?

So, participating in the census is an important thing for you, because your fair share of that political representation is connected to your participation. And, then, since, over the decades, there have been hundreds of programs passed by Congresses that return taxpayer money to local areas based on census count, in the laws of these programs, it says we’re going to distribute the money based on population.

The population counts are going to come from the census. That’s now over $400 billion a year, a vast amount.

JIM LEHRER: Four hundred billion dollars a year?

ROBERT GROVES: Four hundred billion dollars a year.

JIM LEHRER: Based on a census — on the census figures?

ROBERT GROVES: That’s right.

And, so, to get your fair share of that money, your neighborhood’s, your family’s, your city’s fair share of that, you have got to participate in the census. And it — it’s the kind of thing that your decision to fill out this little form now has 10 years of impact on you. We do this only once every 10 years.

So, this form is the closest to the 1790 census form in — in our lifetimes. In 1790, the Congress said, we’re going to collect name, age, sex, and race. We ask a couple of more questions, and that’s it.

So, we have kept this down to the bare minimum. We have this little slogan that says, 10 questions, 10 minutes. Some of my friends have called me and said: “You’re lying. My wife and I filled it out. It took us only three minutes.”

So, we have overestimated, perhaps, the length of time it takes to fill these out.

JIM LEHRER: And, in a word, if anybody is concerned about it, from your perspective, and you could state on behalf of the U.S. government, you don’t think people’s privacy is invaded by these forms?

ROBERT GROVES: Let me tell you about this. You know, I — since I have had this job, since July, I have become more admiring of the founding fathers, because, in setting up a census that counted everyone, and in knowing and anticipating that this country is going to be a country of immigrants, you immediately have to ask the question, how can you set up a census where new immigrants, many fleeing countries with oppressive central government regimes, would feel safe participating?

And, so, we have — one of the proudest things I think I can say is, we have a set of laws that protect the confidentiality of your answers to the nth degree. And that’s a good thing for us.

JIM LEHRER: Director Groves, thank you very much. Good luck to you.

ROBERT GROVES: Great to be here. Thank you.