Hawaii census coaxes wary to respond
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
Local census offices are attempting to improve on the state's less-than-impressive response to the last decennial count, with a huge public education campaign in advance of next month's mass mailout of census forms.
Yet should the public response again fall short of a complete count — in the 2000 census, only 60 percent of Hawai'i households mailed back a census form, the third-worst rate in the country — census officials should have ample personnel to conduct follow-up visits.
More than 1,000 people a week have been reporting to testing sites around the state as part of the process of applying for temporary census work.
"It's really picked up," said Winnie Wilson, manager of the U.S. Census Office in Honolulu. "The response has been strong. And (the applicants) ... are coming from all walks of life — students, retirees, the unemployed."
Census officials hope to recruit some 11,000 applicants to fill about 3,000 temporary positions statewide. Applicants must pass a basic test and clear a background check to be eligible for employment.
The Honolulu office has hired scores of people to help with smaller operations already under way, including counts of shared-quarters facilities such as hospitals, prisons and military installations. More will be hired in May for the much larger task of visiting residences from which census forms have not been returned.
In all, the Honolulu office expects to hire about 1,200 workers for positions paying between $12.50 and $20 an hour. (Census takers earn $17 per hour plus mileage.)
The Wai'anae census office expects to hire about 1,000 people. It closed its recruitment period last week within about 10 percent of its goal of attracting 9,000 applicants.
Next month, Hawai'i residents will begin receiving the 2010 Census form, which has been streamlined to 10 simple questions. Residents need only answer the questions and return the form to complete the process. Those who do not return the form can expect a visit from a census worker, who can answer questions and help with filling out the form.
Census workers will also be out in force next month to deliver questionnaires to residences that do not have mailboxes, including thousands of Neighbor Island homes that receive mail via post office box (census forms will not be delivered to P.O. boxes).
In their effort to improve mailback rates, local census workers have spent the last several weeks trying to educate the public about why the census is important, as well as to correct misperceptions and allay concerns about privacy and safety.
The campaign has included television and radio advertisements; meetings with faith-based groups, neighborhood boards, and civic and cultural organizations; and a tour of local gathering spots by a census information van.
In addition, local census offices have worked with independent "complete count committees" to increase participation in certain ethnic or cultural populations.
Census officials are paying special attention to areas that have traditionally had low mailback rates.
FILLING THE GAPS
The challenges are myriad. In areas with large immigrant populations, low participation may be related to unfamiliarity with the practice and suspicions about how the government uses the information. However, Wilson said that once residents are told how the census works, "they're more than happy to participate."
Census offices are also recruiting bilingual applicants to offer language help during follow-up visits. In addition, the U.S. Census Bureau offers census forms in several languages and telephone help in nearly 60 languages.
Homeless populations are particularly difficult to count, although local census offices hope to come close to a complete count by visiting shelters, emergency food services and other facilities, as well as known homeless communities.
Areas such as Waikīkī or Hawai'i Loa Ridge can also be problematic because secured buildings and gated communities can be difficult to access if follow-up visits are needed.
Wilson said her staff works with building managers and real-estate companies to coordinate visits. Census workers have also been distributing census information outside some larger secured buildings to try to minimize the need for follow-up visits.
In 2000, only 20 percent of Wai'anae residences returned census forms. This year, the Census Bureau has placed an office in the district to try to improve participation.
"The reasons for the low response are education and the fact that we have a population with a lot of homeless people," said Wai'anae Census Office manager Kathleen Popa. "With an office here, they can come in with their questions. I think just our presence here allows them to become familiar with what we do and to see that the process involves them.
"Some have the attitude that this only benefits people in town — 'They don't care about us so why should we help them?' " she said. "We hope to increase our numbers by educating them that they are involved and that they benefit by participating. It's about building rapport."
Last week, a census van visited gathering spots in Nānākuli and Wai'anae to raise awareness of the upcoming census effort.
Michael McShane, an Army veteran who lives in a Wai'anae housing project, said he hopes people in his community will make the effort to get counted.
"We're a growing community and we have a lot of people who are poor and homeless," he said. "We need to make the government see that we have a lot of people here who need help. The best way to do that is to be counted."
McShane said that insufficient infrastructure and lack of facilities are the most obvious of the area's unaddressed problems.
"Hawai'i Kai, 'Āina Haina, all those areas where the richer people live — they get everything," he said. "We feel like we're the last in line. I hope people participate (in the census), because if we make the government understand that we're here, it will make things better for us."