WASHINGTON -- Firebaugh City Manager Jose Ramirez knows the census really counts for a small town like his.
Bigger cities get more money. So this week, amid a broader Fresno County lobbying effort, Ramirez was pressing Census Bureau officials not to miss any of his town's residents -- even if they are hard to find.
"I want to make sure I have the census's attention, because that means a lot for Firebaugh for the next 10 years," Ramirez said.
Nationwide, the federal government distributes some $300 billion annually based on official population counts. Grants for schools, public works, social service agencies and more all turn on the census results. So does the allocation of congressional seats.
Consequently, every census invokes serious debate. For the 2010 census, upon which work already has begun, debate trigger points range from partisan influence to systemic minority undercounting. Here, Firebaugh is right on the front lines.
Some 95 percent of Firebaugh residents are Hispanic, primarily of Mexican descent. This is the very population that's often overlooked in the census. In 2000, 77 percent of white U.S. residents returned census questionnaires. Only 64 percent of Hispanic residents did so, the Government Accountability Office reported last year.
Residents who don't return the mail questionnaires can often be missed in the follow-up door-to-door surveys. Missed residents mean lower population counts, which means less money.
"Minorities, renters and children ... are more likely to be undercounted by the census while more affluent groups, such as people with vacation homes, are more likely to be enumerated more than once," the GAO noted.
The 2000 census pegged Firebaugh's population at 5,700, making the farming community one of Fresno County's smallest. In truth, Ramirez said, the population is probably somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000. Illegal immigrants, in particular, tend to be missed when census takers start knocking on doors.
"We need to work with the Census Bureau, to hire local people who are trusted by the community." Ramirez said.
Ramirez said the Census Bureau's associate director, Arnold Jackson, assured him that a census "partnership specialist" will work closely with the town and that local residents will be hired to conduct the decennial survey. Nationwide, some 500 partnership specialists are doing similar liaison work for other communities.
"Certainly, we're going to undertake extensive efforts to reach everybody," said Raul Cisneros, chief of the media relations branch for the 2010 census.
Other work is already well underway for the massive census undertaking, now expected to cost roughly $14 billion. When they are done, workers will have tallied some 308 million U.S. residents. By law, all must be counted whether or not they are in the United States legally.
A Hispanic advisory committee is helping shape the Census Bureau's ethnic outreach, which includes a market-tested, Spanish-language campaign platform titled "Esta en Nuestras Manos," or "It's in Our Hands." The Census Bureau's 351-page marketing plan calls for aggressive use of the Spanish-language Univision network, along with specialized outlets like the United Farm Workers' Radio Network, which broadcasts through the San Joaquin Valley.
"The foundation of the Hispanic communications plan is based on reaching both documented and undocumented (residents)," the marketing plan notes.
Last year, several hundred workers were recruited in San Joaquin County to help conduct a census dress rehearsal. San Joaquin County was one of two locations in the country to serve as a base for the dress rehearsal.
The dress rehearsals in North Carolina and San Joaquin County revealed what the GAO called "a number of technical problems" with new handheld computers, which included screen freeze-ups and data transmission crashes. Subsequently, the Commerce Department backed away from plans to equip all of its 525,000 enumerators with handheld computers in 2010.
The handheld computers will be used, however, for nationwide address canvassing that begins this April.
Politicians across the spectrum are monitoring the 2010 census as closely as Ramirez. On Thursday, Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire cited census administration as one reason for backing out of his nomination as President Barack Obama's commerce secretary.
"I have found that on issues such as the stimulus package and the census there are irresolvable conflicts for me," Gregg explained.
Although Gregg did not elaborate, other GOP lawmakers have complained about an Obama administration proposal to shift census oversight directly into White House hands.