March 2, 2010 | The Times-Picayune | Original Article

New Orleans is ready for 2010 census, top federal official says

As questionnaires for the 2010 census begin landing this week on doorsteps across the New Orleans area, a top federal official reiterated Tuesday that respondents should record their residence as the place they usually live, even if that's not the hurricane-damaged house to which they plan to return.

dennis_hightower.jpgDennis Hightower is deputy secretary of the U.S. Commerce Department.

U.S. Commerce Deputy Secretary Dennis Hightower said during a visit to New Orleans that residents should not try to "game the system" to inflate population counts in devastated communities.

"That's undercutting the entire purpose. The entire purpose is to know where you are on the first of April," he said, referring to the official census day. "The law is so clear on that. I don't want to get into political discussions. It's not about anything other than where are you on the first of April."

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has urged people displaced by Hurricane Katrina who are still living elsewhere, but longing to return home, to record New Orleans as their residence. Census tallies, due out in early 2011, will determine congressional representation for the next decade, as well as the distribution of about $400 billion annually in federal money.

Meanwhile, St. Bernard President Craig Taffaro has invited residents who are still rebuilding their homes to spend the night with friends or relatives in the parish on the eve of April 1. Such a visit, he has said, would allow the hosts to honestly answer the census' key question: "How many people were living or staying in this house, apartment or mobile home on April 1, 2010?"

Hightower emphasized that respondents should not lie on the questionnaire, and said the best way for communities to ensure the highest possible enumeration is to encourage all residents to return questionnaires -- comprised of 10 questions that can be answered in about 10 minutes -- as quickly as possible.

"It's only once every 10 years that we get to take this snapshot of America, if you will, or this self-portrait," he said. "We need to get this right for the people of New Orleans, the people of Louisiana and the people of America."

An unprecedented effort began Monday to hand-deliver questionnaires across most of southeast Louisiana. Forms are slated to be mailed to other households starting March 15, with all questionnaires expected to be en route to residents by April 3, said Gabe Sanchez, director of the Census Bureau's Dallas office, which covers Louisiana.

Households that don't return questionnaires by mid- to late April can expect to be visited in mid-May by census workers, he said. Residents who don't get a form at home can fill out "Be Counted" forms, which will be available after April 1 at libraries and other public buildings.

Hightower met Tuesday in Lakeview with community leaders who for months have tried to educate residents about the census, especially in communities where the mail-back rate of questionnaires traditionally has been low. In poor and immigrant communities, where skepticism of government runs high, residents often ignore the census for fear their personal information will be shared with authorities.

Hightower pledged that, as spelled out in federal law, such breaches will not happen. "The information that is provided is confidential," he said. "The Census Bureau doesn't share that information with any other government authorities."

Advocates also said counting college students, who would list their dorms or off-campus apartments as their residences, is key. Nearly 60,000 students were enrolled last year at 10 local college and universities.

A student-run census advocacy group, Down for the Count, recently found that only 41 percent of about 200 Loyola University students surveyed planned to fill out the census questionnaire this year, while 29 percent thought they'd be included in their parents' household count.

To raise awareness, volunteers spent the past month trying to spread the message that college students, most of whom were about 10 when the last decennial census was conducted, can help the city by filling out census forms, said Down for the Count member Christine Minero, a Loyola senior from Houston.

"The majority of college students came to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and we came here with the understanding that the city is rebuilding. ... And this is a way with a simple 10 questions that we can help the city recover," Minero said.

Besides helping ensure an accurate count, getting residents to mail back their census forms saves money, Hightower said. The cost of deploying workers to visit unresponsive addresses increases by $85 million for every percentage-point dip in the national mail response rate, according to the Census Bureau.

In 2000, about 72 percent of U.S. residents mailed back their census forms. Rates in all seven New Orleans-area parishes were lower, ranging from 54 percent in Plaquemines to 71 percent in Jefferson. The return rate in New Orleans was 58 percent.

Michelle Krupa can be reached at or 504.826.3312.