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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 11, 2010

40% of Hawaii absent in census with mail deadline just days away


By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Darrell Travis, a partnership specialist with the Census Bureau, waves to drivers while display-ing a sign urging folks to return census forms. Travis and fellow census workers targeted the intersection of School Street and Likelike.

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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With less than a week before the official deadline to mail back 2010 census forms, local census officials are making one final push to raise the state's so-far disappointing mail response rate.

Friday is the last day that people can mail back a census questionnaire and avoid a follow-up visit by a census taker. Starting next month, an estimated 3,300 freshly trained enumerators will be deployed statewide to assist those who have not yet returned a census form.

And with about 40 percent of all Hawai'i residences still uncounted, they'll have much ground to cover all at taxpayer expense.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, it costs the government 42 cents per household when forms are returned by mail, compared to the approximately $57 it costs to count a household that does not return a form through the mail.

On a national scale, for every 1 percent increase in the overall mail response rate, taxpayers save $85 million, according to the bureau.

"It's going to be done, one way or the other," said Honolulu Census Office manager Winnie Wilson. "People can mail back their forms and be done with it or we can go out to their homes. Mailing back the form costs everyone less money and if people don't want the hassle of someone showing up at their door, there's still time to mail (the form) back in."

Census offices in Honolulu and Wai'anae are working with several nonprofit groups to coordinate "March to the Mailbox" events this week.

"By now, people have received their announcements, received their questionnaires, taken a few minutes to answer the 10 questions, but (the questionnaire) might still be sitting on the kitchen table," said Wai'anae Census Office manager Kathleen Popa. "We want them to take the final step of actually getting it into the mailbox."

REMINDING PEOPLE

Census representatives have also fanned out from Nānākuli Beach to the Merrie Monarch Festival on the Big Island to answer questions and remind people to mail in their forms.

Popa noted that there is ample assistance available for those who need help filling out the forms.

Questionnaire Assistance Centers have been set up at Oahu Worklinks in the Hau'ula Shopping Center and Papa Ole's Kitchen on Kamehameha Highway. Both will be open through April 19. Another assistance center will be open at Hawai'i Reserves Inc. in the Lā'ie Shopping Center from Monday through Friday this week.

Language assistance guides are also available in 59 languages, Braille and English large print.

For those who have lost or misplaced their questionnaires, replacements are available at 7-Eleven locations islandwide. (However, it is recommended that people try to find their original form, which is "geo-coded" to specify the residence's census tract location.)

Starting next month, an estimated 3,300 freshly trained census takers will be deployed around the state to assist those who haven't mailed back their census forms.

While residences that mailed back a form by April 16 will not be visited, there is no guarantee that those that mail back a form after the deadline will have their form received and processed in time to avoid an enumeration visit.

Census officials had hoped to significantly improve on Hawai'i's poor showing in the last decennial count, when only 60 percent of residences responded by mail the third worst rate in the country. Yet, once again, Hawai'i ranks near the bottom for mail response.

As of yesterday, only 59 percent of Hawai'i residences that had received a census questionnaire had returned the form, compared with a national average of 65 percent.

(The mail participation rate reflects the percentage of forms mailed back by households that received them. Unlike the more general response rate used in previous census years, this measure excludes households whose forms were returned by the U.S. Postal Service as "undeliverable," thus resulting in a higher figure.)

While Honolulu County is right at the national average, the other counties have fallen significantly behind. Hawai'i County had a 50 percent mail response rate as of yesterday, followed by Kaua'i (48 percent) and Maui (45 percent). Kalawao, the unincorporated town on Moloka'i's Kalaupapa peninsula, has a zero mail response rate.

"It's not a pretty picture," Wilson said. "It would be nice to have a strong response rate. We were dismal last time. Why be dismal again?"

NONPROFIT PARTNERS

Hawai'i's low mail-back rate persists despite a massive effort by local census offices and hundreds of nonprofit partners over the past few months to reach out to traditionally hard-to-count areas and populations.

Barring a last-minute surge, census takers will have to count hundreds of thousands of Hawai'i residents the hard way.

The 3,300 enumerator positions which pays $17 per hour with reimbursements for mileage will be filled from an applicant pool of about 9,000 people (applications are still being accepted).

Enumerator training begins in two weeks at hundreds of locations around the state. Each new employee will receive about 40 hours of paid training before they are sent out.

Given the number of residences still uncounted, figure the next few months to be costly. As Popa noted, it is not uncommon for enumerators to visit a residence five or six times before making contact. This can be especially problematic on the Neighbor Islands, where nonresponsive residences may be far apart or difficult to locate, thus adding to hourly wage and mileage compensation totals.

Still, Popa said, the effort is necessary. She cited Census Bureau estimates that each person who is not counted represents a loss of $1,200 to $2,500 in federal funds each year.

Starting today and continuing through August, the Census Bureau will call residences that have returned a census questionnaire to clarify responses given regarding the number of individuals living at the address. The bureau will only call if there is a question about such responses.