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Let the Counting Begin

Census Bureau questionnaires arrive at 8.4 million Texas homes this week. "Fill that sucker out," the bureau's regional director says, "so we don't have to come and knock on your door."

A U.S. Census Bureau worker confirms addresses with a hand-held device.

This week, the decennial count of every American begins in earnest as questionnaires arrive at more than 130 million households. The massive undertaking, which affects federal representation in Washington and the disbursement of $400 billion in federal funds each year, will also determine the makeup of state House and Senate districts during the next legislative session.

The count will have significant implications for Texas politics, as lawmakers return to Austin next year to redraw districts based on the updated snapshot of growth. The state is likely to receive an extra three to four U.S. House seats based on current demographic projections.

About 8 million homes will each receive a simple, 10-question pamphlet seeking information about each resident's age, race, ethnicity and other information. Most are arriving this week by mail, while 10 percent are being hand-delivered to rural regions and areas damaged by Hurricane Ike in 2008. 

Texas, where roughly a third of families speak a language other than in English in the home, had one of the highest undercount rates in the 2000 Census. That incomplete participation cost the state as much as $1 billion in federal funds — or about $2,700 over 10 years for each person who wasn't counted. That's a trend officials hope to change.

"As Texans we always like to be known as the biggest, the boldest and the best. Because of this, I am hopeful that, by working with our partners in this endeavor, we will do better,"  Texas Secretary of State Hope Andrade said at a Capitol rally last week. "If Texans go uncounted, Texas will be shortchanged."

In an effort to boost participation, the bureau this year is taking steps to include more Spanish-speaking homes. The bureau identified "Spanish assistance" households in which one adult speaks Spanish and doesn't speak English "very well," and then noted neighborhoods where such residents were clustered. For the first time, the 13 million households in those neighborhoods nationwide will automatically receive Spanish-language questionnaires. More than half of such homes across the country are in Texas, with some 93,000 "blocks" identified in what Census officials term "linguistic isolation."

Mistrust of government is among the highest hurdles to getting an accurate count in Texas, said Cathy McCully, chief of the bureau's redistricting data office. During a presentation to state lawmakers last year, she stressed that identifying information collected by the Census remains private, and she urged lawmakers to encourage participation. 

"We are collecting data that will support those communities in their planning and urban development," she said.

Census Day officially is April 1. Later that month, the bureau will assess the response to the mailers. Low response areas will receive replacement questionnaires, and reminder post cards will be sent. Then, an army of temporary census workers — 84,000 in Texas — will visit each non-responding household for answers to the 10 questions. 

Census officials say responding to the mailer helps ensure a better count — but also saves taxpayers money. On average, the bureau estimates that it costs about 42 cents to collect the information via the mail, but $57 for each in-person interview.

"The Census is very important to communities," the bureau's regional director, Gabriel Sanchez, told the crowd at the rally. "When you get home, look for that form and fill that sucker out so we don't have to come and knock on your door."

The latest census survey projects the strongest growth in suburban counties around Houston, Dallas and Austin. Counties in West Texas and the Panhandle have seen slower growth or even population decreases, the data show.

Once the counting and tabulating is finished, the bureau will send apportionment figures to the White House by the end of the year. Redistricting data will be distributed to states by April 2011. Because state lawmakers face a short deadline to finish districts maps by June, when the biennial Legislature ends, McCully said Texas would receive data earlier than other states. 

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