Greater Census Participation Hinges on Awareness and Knowledge

A recent Pew poll on attitudes toward the upcoming census revealed that nine in 10 Americans considered the decennial count as either “very” (60 percent) or “somewhat” (30 percent) important. But the poll also found that, even though respondents rated the census as highly important, this did not necessarily mean that there would be greater participation.

The poll suggested that public awareness of the census and its mission was essential to participation.  Eight percent stated that they had never heard of the census, and only a quarter of that group said they would participate in the count.  By contrast, of the 84 percent who were aware of the census and its mission, 65 percent said they would participate.  Of the 16 percent of all persons polled who said they were unlikely to participate in the census, 39 percent said they had never heard of the census. 

“The key driver of uncertainty about participation is lack of awareness about the census and what it’s used for,” said Scott Keeter, a pollster at the Pew Research Center.

Fear of census information being used to round up individuals based on immigration status also remains an issue of concern. Thirty-one percent either believed or were unsure that the census data was used to locate undocumented immigrants.  Latinos were reportedly no more likely to wrongly believe the count is used to track down the undocumented than were Whites or Blacks.

A significant majority of African Americans (74 percent) and Latinos (72 percent) said the census was “very important” compared to just 57 percent of Whites.  But Whites were still more likely (61 percent) to say they will fill out and mail back census forms than African Americans (57 percent) or Latinos (47 percent). The survey does not provide concrete answers as to why this is the case.  It does note however that education and income strongly correlate with expressed intent to participate.

The federal government is launching a $340 million media campaign to promote participation in the 2010 census with $70 million targeting Asian Americans, Hispanic, African Americans, and other ethnic groups long regarded as hard-to-count populations.

In addition, The Leadership Conference Education Fund has partnered with four national civil rights organizations, and will be working closely with local organizations in 13 key areas around the country, to encourage census participation among these hard-to-count populations.

Held every 10 years, the census is a nationwide head count of every person residing in the United States. The information is used by educators, policy makers, and community leaders for distributing more than $400 billion government resources, redistricting, and other important decisions.