COLUMBIA — For most people, completing the 2010 census is a piece of cake. Check the mail, fill out the form, put it back in the mailbox.
But not everyone has a mailbox or even a permanent address.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans fall in the “hard-to-count” category, groups tallied differently to ensure the accuracy of the population numbers.
College students, soldiers, the homeless, immigrants and so-called "floaters" — those who spend most of their time on the road — require the census to go an extra step, said Dennis Johnson, regional director at the U.S. Census Bureau in Kansas City.
This segment represents about 6.8 percent of the population — 24.8 million people — in the United States, according to a report by the Annie B. Casey Foundation, based on the 2000 census.
Missouri's hard-to-count figure was 293,549, or 5.2 percent of the state's 5.6 million population.
In Columbia, college students make up almost 30 percent of those in the hard-to-count group.
Johnson said the census works closely with organizations, employers and institutions to count these groups. Because the intent of the census is to provide a literal head count of everyone in the United States, the information needed is no different than the data collected from everyone else.
“Our goal is to ensure that everyone, regardless of status, is counted,” he said.
The homeless represent the hardest group to count, Johnson said. Census workers begin by contacting shelters, but they also go to transient camps to make sure those who live outdoors are also counted.
Census representatives have already started the process of visiting “transitory locations” — soup kitchens, hotels converted into temporary shelters and centers that provide showers and fresh clothes, he said.
When families are sheltered together, they are counted as such on the census form, even if their housing is temporary.
At minimum, census representatives collect population numbers. If they can, they also assemble more specific demographic information. Those who refuse permission to use their names are identified by a number to protect confidentiality.
Teams of census workers go to selected locations such as parks and bridges to count homeless people that might congregate there, Johnson said. In those instances, individuals are simply counted, not interviewed.
“It’s basically a courtesy not to disturb them,” he said. “In many cases, the visits are in the evening when they might be settled in. The least disruption possible is best for counting those individuals.”
College students are easier to count because census forms explain to parents and guardians that those family members are counted on campus.
Soldiers, likewise, are counted where they are stationed at the time of the census. If they are overseas, the military provides the numbers.
“Someone who’s stationed in Afghanistan right now would probably never see a census form, but they are still counted by the military and assigned back to a location here in the country,” Johnson said.
Similarly, prisoners in Missouri are counted by institutional research departments that send data reports to state wardens. Jacqueline Lapine, communications director at the Department of Corrections, said the requested information is sent out to the 20 state correctional facilities on April 1, after which it is collected by census representatives.
Data with name, ethnicity, age and other standard information are included in those reports.
Illegal immigrants are difficult to count because they may be hesitant to provide information to a government source for fear of reprisal. To ease these worries, census officials say they have taken considerable steps to assure this population that the information is confidential.
“We don’t ask someone about their status or citizenship, and we don’t ask them how long they’ve been in the area,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the mission of the census is to count people wherever they are by April 1.
“That’s something that we’re trying to get the word out to our partners about through churches, employers and various organizations, that those individuals need to be counted wherever they are at the time of the census,” he said.