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Distrust could dampen census count

With the start of the nation's decennial census just weeks away, nearly one in five persons might decline to participate in the high-stakes head count, citing mostly a lack of interest but also a broader distrust of the federal government.

A poll released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center highlighted the challenges as the U.S. Census Bureau prepares to begin 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 had not decided whether 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 ages 18 to 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 quarter cited distrust of government or concerns about privacy.

Nearly one-third said they think the data could be used to locate illegal immigrants or that they weren't certain whether 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 are not alone. 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 Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund said it has yet to receive government assurances that census data would be kept confidential. 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 includes television spots in 28 different languages. As the nation's top advertiser in the coming weeks, the agency estimates it will reach the average American 42 times with slogans such as: "The 2010 census - it's in our hands."

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.

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