Columbia campaign to count 'hard-to-count groups' for census

Wednesday, March 17, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 7:19 p.m. CDT, Thursday, March 25, 2010
Mary Haldiman, right, and Sharon Wegener, center, receive information from U.S. Census Bureau employee Dave Perfecto at a rally held Monday in Jefferson City. The rally was held to spread information about the census and encourage people to participate.

COLUMBIA— Katie Ragsdale lives in Hatch Residence Hall along with about 520 other MU students. A freshman, she moved from Kansas City to Columbia last fall.

Freshman Scott Stanley came to MU from Blue Springs and lives with 64 others in the Farmhouse fraternity house. 

Lindsey Hoffman, a senior, lives with a roommate in an old apartment building downtown that houses both students and non-students. Her parents and three younger siblings live in Boston.

All of these students are still unclear about how they will be counted in the U.S. census, which is now fully under way.

"I'm confused," Hoffman said. "I've heard so much about it, but I still don't understand what I'm supposed to do."

In Columbia, that is cause for alarm. College students are included in the city's population count, but many are unaware of the process or the consequences.

The U.S. Census Bureau has designated them as a "hard-to-count group," and communities like Columbia must make an extra effort — often a colossal effort — to make sure students fill out their forms.

Federal funding and congressional representation both rely on census data for demographic information, so getting an accurate count of the population is important to government and community leaders.

Census data is used to apportion seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and appropriate more than $400 billion in federal funds to state and local communities. 

In Missouri, which has lost population since the last census, this is especially significant. The state is on the cusp of losing a congressional seat.

Census data will also determine which parts of a community are increasing in size so city governments can better accommodate growth with neighborhood improvements such as senior centers, roads, bridges, hospitals and other projects.

According to Boone County Presiding Commissioner Ken Pearson, in the 2000 census, the county averaged a response rate of around 71 percent. While this is slightly higher than state's 69 percent average, Pearson believes the county can do better.

"We want to maximize the participation of all the households in Columbia and Boone County," he said.

How is Columbia getting the word out?

In order to encourage a complete response, Mayor Darwin Hindman created the Complete Count Alliance for Columbia. The group has 49 members, including Hindman and Pearson, all representing a broad spectrum of social and business networks in the community.

They have been getting the word out through leaflets, Web sites, bulletin boards in public areas and announcements at various meetings, Hindman said.

Bruce Meentemeyer has used the Shelter Insurance Web site to share census information with his fellow employees.

Phyllis Fugit, chairwoman of the Boone County Democrats, has posted census material at the organization's headquarters. Similarly, Donna Spickert of the Boone County Republicans, said announcements are made at party gatherings.

Columbia Public Schools are educating children about the importance of the census, as well as putting information in school newsletters for parents, said Michelle Baumstark, community relations coordinator.

"A complete count is important for Columbia, but it's also important for democracy," Hindman said.

A college town is hard to count

Missouri's Complete Count Committee is also charged with ensuring that all state residents are included. 

The group coordinates and funds efforts to reach the "hard-to-count" groups and areas, which include recent immigrants, transient populations, the homeless and college students.

The last group is particularly crucial for future federal funding in Columbia. Based on a 2008 Brookings Institute study, Missouri received $1,420.66 per capita based on 2000 census data.

MU, Stephens College and Columbia College enroll about 36,000 college students. Altogether, they are worth more than $51 million in federal money for the community.

Census rules stipulate that students living on or off campus most of the year are counted in the city where they attend school. The problem is, most believe they are counted at home.

"College students who are away at school assume that their parents are just going to take care of it," said Lori Simms, public information officer with the state Office of Administration.

"They need to be counted at school."

Cathy Scroggs, the vice chancellor for student affairs at MU, is heading up an initiative to reach every student. 

On campus, students are counted in clusters. Off campus, they fill out forms the same way most residents do.

Students who live in dormitories and Greek houses are counted in a "group quarters count," meaning residential, sorority and fraternity officials work with census takers to fill out a collective form.

This type of count is also used to gather data from nursing homes, prisons and military barracks.

But Simms said students who live in dormitories aren't the issue. 

"It's the five guys who share a house, making sure that they fill the form out and all five of them need to be on that form," she said.

MU's biggest campaign to reach the outliers will be handled through Facebook messages, Scroggs said. 

Census representatives will also visit Memorial Union, the Student Recreation Complex and other central locations to help students fill out forms.

Diane Burge, a regional census technician working out of Kansas City, said the bureau wants to reach college students before they leave school for the summer.

"There's a special effort to get to them first," she said. 




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