Few residents seek help with census forms
James Wombwell wasn't very popular during his time in Tonganoxie.
Wombwell was a questionnaire assistant for the U.S. Census Bureau, assigned to Tonganoxie City Hall since early March.
"We're supposed to be here to answer questions they might have — make them feel comfortable so they'll submit their forms," Wombwell said.
But, Wombwell said he didn't find much demand for the service. Only a handful of residents walked into City Hall to seek his help, he said.
The story was somewhat different in Basehor, where Wombwell also worked as a questionnaire assistant but at the city library. The extra visibility brought a few more residents to his table, he said.
Wombwell mans one of six assistance centers in Leavenworth County. There are two sites in Lansing and three in Leavenworth.
Mike Ferguson, U.S. Census Bureau area manger, said there were about 250 employed in the $15 an hour assistance center positions in his section of Kansas, which is essentially the northern half of the state.
Wombwell's lack of activity could be a positive sign that people were comfortable with the census form or got the message of the importance of returning it, Ferguson said.
The U.S. Constitution requires the federal government conduct a census at the start of each decade. It is used to determine representation in Congress, distribution of federal aid and planning. The state also uses the census to draw maps for seats in the Kansas Legislature.
He “was comfortable” with the number of returned census forms thus far, Ferguson said. The numbers were comparable with those from the 2000 census and projections, he said.
As of Tuesday, 69 percent of Tonganoxie residents had returned the 10-question Census forms. That was same as the national average but 4 percent lower than the state average. It lagged behind Leavenworth County as a whole where 74 percent of the forms have been returned.
Census efforts continue on several fronts, Ferguson said. Workers were starting to visit “group quarters,” such as dorms, hospitals and prisons and visiting Indian reservations, he said. Training and preparation in ongoing for the next big push, the door-to-door enumeration visits to those residents who didn’t return forms by the coming May 1 deadline.
Ferguson said he couldn't pinpoint how many temporary workers were involved in the census in his area of Kansas right now with some efforts ramping up and others phasing out. But he said 4,000 would be involved with the Kansas enumeration work.
With national unemployment at 9.5 percent, the temporary census jobs are an opportunity for people like Wombwell, who was laid off from his job as an historian at Fort Leavenworth.
“That’s one thing we’re very proud of, giving people a chance to earn a paycheck even if it's only temporary,” Ferguson said. “Due to the downturn, we have a lot of very highly qualified and motivated people working for us.”
But this year's census effort shouldn't be viewed as stimulus driven, Ferguson said. The planning started well before the recession and is aimed to get an accurate count, he said.
“We're planning for the next census right now,” he said. “We plan ahead with Republican or Democratic administrations. We work on funding with Congress.
“It’s great we can hire people, but our mission is to complete the census. If that requires 1,000 people in a center rather than 500, we'll do that to get it done.”
The Census Bureau is concerned about costs and the best way to keep costs contained was for residents to return the mailed census forms by the May 1 deadline, Ferguson said. Each visit to an address with an unreturned form is estimated to cost $57, he said.
“That’s how much it’s estimated to cost when you figure in the hourly wages, mileage, preparation, training and everything,” he said. “The more people who don't return the forms, the more money it costs.”
The door-to-door effort will start in May and could continue through July, Ferguson said. Visits will be made during the day and evenings hours, he said.
Despite some anti-census rhetoric, it is anticipated most of those who failed to return forms were too busy to return the forms or unaware of their importance, Ferguson said.
Enumerators can't force anyone to fill out the forms, but would work with respondents to fill out forms or provide replacements if the originals have been lost or thrown away, Ferguson said.
“This is something that has to be done by law, but we're not an enforcement agency,” he said. “We understand there’s a lot of privacy concerns out there, and a lot of pepole who don't know what the census is used for.
“We'll work with them and help them get the forms filled out.”