March 16, 2010 | The Morning Call | Original Article

Census forms are on the way. Lehigh Valley communities' futures could depend on result

FOR THE RECORD (Published Wednesday, March 17, 2010) CLARIFICATION: The hand-shaped 2010 U.S. Census logo appears on some, but not all, Census-related materials from the federal government. A caption in Tuesday's paper may have been misleading. - 3/17/2010

Hold up -- before you recycle your junk mail this week, make sure you take a close look.

See that oversize white envelope with ''Census 2010'' printed on it in big black letters? That's not junk mail -- that's your once-in-a-decade federal Census form, and officials from your city hall all the way to Washington, D.C., want to make sure you fill it out.

''It is so important. Our livelihood, our future depends on us having a correct count,'' said Ismael Arcelay, special assistant to Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski and the city's Census liaison.

Completing the Census forms -- which were mailed Monday and should arrive at most Lehigh Valley homes this week -- is required by law but there's more to it. Federal officials use the information to make all sorts of decisions, from how many representatives each state gets in Congress to how federal grants are handed out.

''A lot of our grants are per capita-based, and obviously you want to make sure that you're counting every head that qualifies,'' said Tony Hanna, Bethlehem director of community and economic development.

Arcelay agreed, saying for each resident who's counted, Allentown stands to receive thousands of dollars over the next 10 years.

''You multiply a thousand extra people by that, you see what happens…more money for parks, for education, for hospitals,'' Arcelay said.

Thousands of Lehigh Valley residents never responded to the last Census, in 2000. In Allentown, only 68 percent of residents filled out the forms and were counted, while Bethlehem had a 76 percent response rate and Easton's was 61 percent, according to statistics at . Statewide, the response was 70 percent.

Unfortunately, Easton Mayor Sal Panto Jr. said, ''the group of people that would [benefit] the most is the people who don't respond'' -- the city's poorest residents. Many seem to think filling out the Census means they're ''going to get hit with taxes [or] jury duty,'' Panto said.

But in fact, more detailed information about cities' neediest populations would result in more services for them, Arcelay said.

Census officials are sworn not to share any information with the Internal Revenue Service, law enforcement, immigration agents or any other officials, said Yvette Núñez, a media specialist with the U.S. Census Bureau's Philadelphia Regional Census Center.

''We've been doing this since 1790. So we definitely have a track record when it comes to maintaining information confidentially,'' Núñez said.

This year's Census form is ''one of the shortest in history,'' she added, noting the 10-question form doesn't ask for sensitive information such as Social Security numbers or immigration status. ''We basically want to know your name, your age, who lives in your home and how they're related to you,'' Núñez said.

Hoping to improve the national response rate from 67 percent in 2000, Census officials have launched a national advertising campaign, including Super Bowl commercials, and a series of mailed reminders.

Other groups, including the National League of Cities and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, have also launched efforts to promote the Census.

Locally, Arcelay said he's worked since last summer with neighborhood block watch groups, churches, Allentown School District and private institutions such as Sacred Heart Hospital to print and distribute cards and fliers about the Census, in English and in Spanish.

The materials have gone out through meetings, student handouts and city water bills, and some shopkeepers have even agreed to insert them in customers' grocery bags.

''We did that with dry cleaners, with supermarkets, with bodegas,'' Arcelay said.

Easton, which has a population a quarter the size of Allentown's, doesn't have the budget for such extensive efforts, Panto said. But he and other city officials are trying to inform churches and community groups, so they can help get the message out.

In Bethlehem, members of the city's planning and development staff are to help promote Census participation, Hanna said, though details are still being worked out.

Some people remain skeptical of the Census. When it comes to personal data, ''the federal government abuses that. We know it,'' said Bernadette Sukley, a media liaison with the Project 9-12/Tea Party of the Lehigh Valley.

Nationally, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and others who have worked with some tea party groups have raised similar doubts. In June, Bachmann publicly pledged not to fill out her 2010 Census form.

Sukley said the Lehigh Valley group isn't advocating that anyone risk a federal fine (the law provides for a penalty of up to $5,000) by not completing the form.

''I don't think anybody in the tea party movement wants to advocate anyone breaking the law,'' she said. ''However, we encourage people to make this decision based on their own beliefs.''

Arcelay said he knows some residents have questions and concerns, which he tries to address at community gatherings. But it would be self-defeating for those residents to let those worries persuade them to sit out the Census, he said.

''This is for you,'' Arcelay said. ''You will feel the pain in the next 10 years if you don't get counted.''