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Recession, housing crisis pose major challenges for accurate census count

October 13, 2009 |  3:29 pm

The nation’s census chief said Tuesday that the housing crisis, economic recession and waves of new immigrants pose enormous challenges that could make an accurate 2010 count more difficult and expensive in California and elsewhere than a decade ago.

Robert Groves, U.S. Census Bureau director, said widespread housing foreclosures have displaced many people, making them harder and more expensive to count. Increased immigration has heightened the challenge of reaching people in their own language -- a task more complex in Los Angeles than nearly anywhere else in the nation.

At the same time, the recession has prompted major reductions in state and local funding for census outreach, Groves said at a breakfast meeting in Los Angeles.

California has cut its census funding to $2 million from $24.7 million a decade earlier, and a Pew Charitable Trusts study released this week found that L.A. funding has also plunged.

But the census director outlined several new initiatives to combat the problems as officials prepare to launch the count next April. They include a fivefold increase in local outreach staff, financed by an overall federal funding hike to $14.7 billion, more than double the $6.2 billion spent on the last census.

In addition, private foundations such as the California Community Foundation and the California Endowment have kicked in census funds.

Census officials also plan an extensive effort to reach out to immigrants and minorities, who traditionally have been undercounted. The 2010 census will debut a Spanish-English bilingual ballot for more than 13 million households, along with census forms in six languages and advertising in 59 languages.

The Census design itself should also promote better response, Groves said. The bureau has jettisoned the long form and will send out only the short questionnaire, which yields response rates 8 to 10% higher, he said. And a replacement form will be mailed to households that do not respond the first time to give them a second chance to be counted.

“Will it work? We don’t know,” Groves said. “The frightening thing about the census is you only ... have one shot every 10 years.

But, he added, “Our aspirations are this is the best census in U.S. history.”

-- Teresa Watanabe

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