With the decennial census just weeks away, nearly 1 in 5 people say they aren't sure they will participate in the high-stakes head count, citing mostly a lack of interest but also a broader distrust of government.
A poll released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center highlights the challenges as the Census Bureau prepares to launch its tally in March. The findings come as some groups question whether the agency's $300 million outreach effort is doing enough to reach hard-to-count communities.
"The big picture message is they've got a lot of work to do in terms of informing people," said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. He cited young people in particular, as well as those with less education and Hispanics who have had less exposure to the census or government.
Overall, 90 percent of those surveyed called the population count "very important" or "somewhat important" for the country. Many were also familiar with the value of the census in redistributing U.S. House seats every 10 years and distributing billions of dollars in federal aid.
Still, 12 percent of U.S. residents said they weren't sure if they would fill out the government form, and another 6 percent said they were unlikely to or definitely would not do so. These people were more likely to be young adults 18-29 and lower-income people.
Asked why they were unlikely to participate, more than half said it was because they were too busy, not interested or weren't familiar with the census. One-fourth cited distrust of government or concerns about privacy.
Nearly one-third said they believe the data could be used to locate illegal immigrants or said they weren't certain if it could. Census director Robert Groves has repeatedly said the information would be kept confidential.
"In today's America, you can't reach everybody with one or two ads on two or three television networks," said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League and chairman of the 2010 Census Advisory Committee. "It is the depth and breadth, who delivers the message, where it's placed and the frequency."
Last month, his group, along with the NAACP and the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, called for more paid advertising in black community newspapers, because blacks historically have been undercounted.
They're not alone in their complaints. The National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders is urging millions of illegal immigrants to boycott the census to protest inaction on immigration reform. The group said it appeared even less unlikely Congress would act after Republicans won in the special Massachusetts Senate election.
The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund says it has yet to receive government assurances that census data would be kept confidential under the Patriot Act. It plans to release a report later this month on notable gaps in outreach in communities with sizable Asian populations, such as Chicago, northern Virginia, and San Jose, Calif.
In response, the Census Bureau has been touting its $133 million advertising campaign, which include television spots in 28 different languages, to convey the 10-question census form is safe and easy to complete. As the nation's top advertiser in the coming weeks, the agency estimates it will reach the average person 42 times with slogans such as the "2010 census - it's in our hands."
The ad campaign began this week, after the Pew poll was conducted. The survey asked people about their plans to mail in census forms but did not specifically ask whether they would respond to census takers visiting their homes.
In 2000, about 67 percent of U.S. residents mailed back their forms, with the remainder counted by door-to-door canvassing. This year, the Census Bureau is bracing for a mail return rate that is roughly the same, if not lower, and is hiring nearly 1 million temporary employees to locate hard-to-find residents.
Among the Pew findings, nearly half, or 46 percent, of people incorrectly believe that participation in the census is not required by law, and another 23 percent said they weren't certain. In fact, federal law imposes a fine of up to $5,000 for failure to respond, although the agency rarely seeks to enforce it.
The Census Bureau officially launches its head count Monday in rural Alaska, and the count for the rest of the nation begins in March. The stakes are high, with several states, including California, New York, Illinois, Massachusetts and Ohio, at risk of losing U.S. House seats, depending on how fully their residents are counted.
Pew interviewed 1,504 adults by cell or home phone from Jan. 6-10. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.