More than half a million temporary workers today began visiting the 42 million housing units in the United States that did not mail back their Census 2000 questionnaires.
Kenneth Prewitt, director of the Census Bureau, said 65 percent of the 120 million homes have sent back their forms. In addition, 66,000 census questionnaires were answered over the Internet this year, the first time the Census Bureau offered the cyberspace option.
This current phase, called nonresponse follow-up, is the most difficult and costly part of census-taking. It is scheduled to last until July 7.
The census takers, called enumerators, will contact households that did not send back either the short form or the long form — the 53-question form that is sent to one in six, or approximately 20 million, households. Prewitt said about 20 percent of the 42 million households that did not return questionnaires received the long forms.
While the short form asks basic household information — such as whether a person owns or rents the home and the person's age and race — the long form includes questions such as income level, what time the person leaves for work and how many bathrooms are in the house.
Data providers purchase aggregated data collected on the long form so they can offer statistical pictures of specific neighborhoods. In particular, they can track demographic estimates and the number of housing units in small areas such as census tracts and block groups — information that is difficult to retrieve from any other source. Direct marketers, for example, often use census information because it fills in blanks in large consumer databases.
Prewitt said one reason for the low response rate may be that many congressional leaders and American consumers think the questionnaires threaten privacy.
Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-MS, told people in March not to answer any long-form questions that they thought invaded their privacy. In addition, conservative members of Congress said they received hundreds of angry calls from voters who thought the long-form questions were too intrusive.
As a result, Prewitt is concerned that households may not cooperate with enumerators collecting long-form data.
“We are not promising to actually count a higher percentage of the American population from the basic enumeration this year than we did in 1990,” he said. “The conditions that make that difficult have not lessened — high mobility, irregular housing, linguistically isolated households and now, of course, the scurrying of the anti-census, anti-government argument. This simply means some people will slam the door and not cooperate.”
The enumerators make up to three telephone calls and three personal visits to housing units thought to be occupied but no questionnaires have been received for. After that, the enumerators are instructed to seek out proxy sources, such as a neighbor, a rental agent, a building manager or some other knowledgeable person 15 years old or over, to obtain basic data.
The main challenge of the enumerators will be to complete the count within the allotted time, while keeping down dependence on proxy data, which generally are considered less reliable than those obtained from a household member.
In addition, the enumerators will not visit households that sent back long forms but did not completely fill them out.
Direct marketers worry that if too many people leave questions blank, data quality will be impaired or unavailable.
The enumerators, who carry official census badges, initially will be assigned 40 cases each. When they finish, they will receive new assignments. Most cases are expected to be assigned in the first two or three weeks. Although most enumerators will work alone, those with safety concerns will work in teams of two or in daylight “blitz” operations in areas considered dangerous.