Up for the Count 

Census bureau gears up for 2010.

In former Harvard Business Review editor Suzy Welch's new book, she discusses an idea she calls 10-10-10.

The "life management tool," which she developed and coined, suggests people look at each decision and evaluate the outcome 10 minutes from now, 10 months from now, and 10 years from now.

The U.S. Census Bureau would no doubt like U.S. residents to think about the same implications when they get their census forms in the spring. The next nationwide census has a new form that should take 10 minutes or less to complete, and the data discovered will impact the country for the next 10 years.

"The census will document what's going on in our country," says Wayne Hatcher, census regional director. "It's not the same country it was 10 or 20 years ago."

The census, which is mandated every 10 years by the U.S. Constitution, is used to reapportion seats in the House of Representatives. But, as census bureau officials were quick to point out during a recent briefing at the National Civil Rights Museum, it is also used to divvy up $435 billion each year in federal funding for education, health care, and transportation.

The census doesn't count each citizen but each inhabitant of the country. It also counts people where they spend most of their nights, so college students are counted where they go to school and prisoners are counted where they're in prison.

"Each person missed means less revenue coming into the city for a decade," Hatcher says.

Which is why the census bureau is determining strategies to make the 2010 census more accurate, especially in counting populations that have been underrepresented in the past.

One change is to nix the long census form. In the past, one out of every six households received a longer census form that included questions about income, commute, and other socioeconomic data.

To collect that data, the bureau currently performs the American Community Survey, a monthly questionnaire sent to 250,000 households. Because data is continually compiled, it is much more up-to-date than what could be, at times, 10-year-old census numbers.

It also means that for the 2010 census, all households will receive a short, 10-question form that simply asks for gender, race, and age.

For every three census forms sent in the mail, the census bureau gets two back. Workers then go door-to-door to the 33 percent of addresses that didn't return the form. Workers are also sent to homeless shelters and community centers.

To help with that endeavor, the bureau will hire roughly 2,000 local workers within the next 10 months.

In Memphis, one group that has been undercounted are young African-American males. The government plans to hire people who live in public housing to help count this population.

"We want to make sure they're not omitted this year," says Neal Darby, census partnership specialist. "We want to get people who live in public housing to count them. If they don't know someone, they're not going to open the door for them."

Another underrepresented population is the Hispanic community. Census bureau officials state that other government branches — say, the IRS or the INS — don't have access to their data and that no one, not even Barack Obama, can see personal data. At least not for now. The census bureau does release the data after 72 years.

But, in addition to apportioning representation and government services, the census performs an important function in telling us who were are and what we look like as a community.

Ten years ago, Shelby County had 897,000 residents, 63 percent of them homeowners and 25 percent of them with a bachelor's degree or higher. More than 1,188 Shelby Countians lived in the area per square mile.

Where are we today? The census bureau estimates that there were 907,000 Shelby County residents by 2008.

"As a working journalist, the numbers are as close to the truth as we can possibly get," says B.J. Welborn, media team leader for the region. "Otherwise, decisions might get made by those with the loudest voices or the most influence."

Census forms should arrive in the spring, and census officials are quick to point out that this is a once-in-a-decade chance.

"That $435 billion is going to be spent by somebody," says Mike Hall, assistant regional census manager. "We want to make sure the Memphis area gets its fair share of that money."

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