Alaska a big challenge for census takers

Posted: Monday, March 20, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- At the Tanana Chiefs Conference convention last week, Dee Olin tossed stress-reducing balls at delegates and gave away bumper stickers and balloons.

In Fairbanks schools this week, she'll hand out pencils and magnets and maps.

Although it sounds almost as though she's running for office, her campaign is for a different effort: Census 2000. Olin is a community partnership specialist for the U.S. Census Bureau.

At the Tanana Chiefs convention, Olin focused on the importance of an accurate head count for services and programs vital to Alaska's tribes.

''The United States are getting more and more diverse,'' Olin said.

By developing accurate counts and profiles of various ethnic groups, governments can determine how those groups are being served by the laws and programs passed to protect their interests, Olin said. She cited the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which keeps banks from discriminating against minorities.

Tribes can use census data in applying for grants and aid programs, Olin said, and the more accurate the data, the better. Natives should be sure to register their ethnic group as well as their tribal affiliation on the forms, she said.

Almost everyone has some use for census numbers, Olin said, and they're available now on the Internet. Churches and other nonprofit organizations also use census data when applying for grants, Olin said.

The Census Bureau estimates that $182 billion will be distributed annually based on formulas using data from the 2000 census.

People can look at population data for employment trend information, or even for hints about how to marry a millionaire, Olin said.

One of the fastest growing populations in the United States is the group of millionaires in Seattle. These financially successful folks are between the ages of 20 and 30 and are involved in the computer industry, she said.

''Everybody looks at this information to see where they fit in, where there are opportunities,'' she said.

The Census Bureau faces severe challenges in Alaska, where the population can be hard to reach. Returns are historically low. During the 1990 census, for instance, only four out of every 10 census forms were returned.

The return rate for the 2000 census has been low so far in Alaska, but it's early yet. Of 108,409 forms distributed in Anchorage, only 198 had been returned by March 16 -- a 0.2 percent return rate. In Fairbanks, the rate was just slightly higher, 0.4 per cent, with 136 out of 35,159 forms returned.

Olin encourages people to return the forms sent them in the mail. Forms that are not returned will require a visit by a census taker. The federal government goes to great lengths to satisfy the U.S. Constitution's mandate to enumerate the population every 10 years.

''That's the whole intent of the questionnaire, to take a snapshot in time of the population,'' Olin said.

Most households will receive the short form of the census questionnaire, but one in six households will get a longer form that takes an estimated 38 minutes to fill out. According to information on the Census Bureau's Web site, the long form is used to gather more in-depth information used to evaluate and implement governmental programs.

This year's census effort will continue through early summer.

Olin said many people ask questions about the confidentiality of the census because the forms ask a number of personal questions about income and family composition. The privacy of census forms is protected for 72 years, Olin said.

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