Ten years ago, historically black Eatonville had one of the lowest census response rates of any city in Central Florida. Barely half — 56 percent — of Eatonville residents mailed back their census questionnaires. Their predominantly white municipal next-door neighbor, Maitland, had one of the highest response rates — 74 percent.
Last week, when 2010 census forms began showing up in Eatonville mailboxes, there was hardly a resident in the town of 2,300 who hadn't heard about the importance of filling out and returning the forms. They heard about it at the Zora! Festival and the Martin Luther King Day parade in January. They were reminded of it when they paid their water bills at City Hall, picked up their mail at the Post Office, and sat in church on Sunday morning.
"It's not like you can avoid it," said Alfonzo Goodwin, a 15-year Eatonville resident who doesn't remember a push like this for the 2000 census.
As never before, the U.S. Census Bureau is determined in 2010 to increase the response rate for minorities whose participation in the decennial census lags behind whites. In 2000, the census estimated that blacks were twice as likely to be undercounted than whites. Hispanics were three times more likely than whites to be missed by the census.
A concerted effort this time around
"The numbers are equated to money," said Sanford City Commissioner Velma Williams, minority coordinator for the Seminole County Complete Count Committee. "If you are not counted, you lose that money."
To improve participation in the 2010 Census, officials recruited minority census takers from the communities in which they live. In Eatonville, local residents were encouraged to become census "enumerators." These are the people who will be calling, and knocking on the doors, of residents who failed to return their forms by the April 1 deadline.
The same thing took place in Orlando where black census takers were matched to the neighborhoods in which they lived — particularly in the Parramore area, which had a response rate of 45 percent in 2000.
Similarly, the Census Bureau has engaged Hispanic community organizations to not only spread the word that there is nothing to fear from the census but also to recruit census takers for the door-to-door follow-up. Finding familiar faces who can approach illegal immigrants and migrant farm workers is important in the census' obligation to get a complete and accurate count of all people living in the United States.
"Especially the farm workers and the immigrants, they are afraid and they don't trust people," said Tirso Moreno, general coordinator of the Farm Worker Association of Florida. "I think they did the right thing in getting people who know the community. They know these folks."
Among Asians, the 2010 census became the catalyst for rejuvenating the Asian American Federation of Florida, a statewide conglomeration of more than 70 Asian nationalities.
A complete count of Asians is important because as a small minority group compared to blacks and Hispanics, it's easy for them to be overlooked and ignored by the politicians who control money and services that affect the Asian community, said Federation President Joy Bruce.
"We are anticipating that we are at least 400,000 strong [in Florida]. But we cannot just throw out numbers. Everything depends on the census numbers," said Joy Bruce, president of the Asian-American Federation and a Miami physician. "If you are not in the census, you are not there."
Why does it matter?
Money and power are the byproducts of the decennial census. The numbers determine the allocation of $400 billion in federal tax dollars, the number of congressional seats a state receives, and how the district lines are drawn for federal, state and local jurisdictions.
But for blacks and Hispanics, there is also the issue of status, influence and bragging rights. Following the 2000 census, Hispanics officially surpassed blacks as the nation's largest minority group. Many blacks believe that's because so many of them failed to stand up and be counted.
"I think African Americans are going to have a better response this year," said Michael Purcell, 47, who attends church in Eatonville.
Hispanics feel much the same way.
"If our people get undercounted, we might not continue to be the largest," Moreno said.
But on the street level in Eatonville, the decision as to whether to fill out the census form that just arrived in the mail comes down to more practical terms. Is this a civic duty inside an envelope or another piece of junk mail?
"A lot of people won't fill it out because they don't know what's in it for them," said Ted Johnson, 48, a Mercedes salesman from Lake Mary getting his hair cut in an Eatonville barbershop. "If they can't understand that, it's going in the garbage."
State Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, said she answers the "what's in it for me?" question by reminding people how those federal tax dollars are spent on the street level: on schools, hospitals, community centers, the new street lights, brick paving and beautification of Kennedy Boulevard through downtown Eatonville.
"I talk with them about the WIC program and services for senior citizens. I talk to them about health care and hospitals and the fact that the hard-to-count populations are underserved," Thompson said.
Joyce Burks said she never considered not filling out the form, just as she has never hesitated about whether or not to vote. She's a married woman with children in school and two elderly parents at home. Her husband is a plumber who's grateful to be employed. They exist. They deserve to be counted.
"If you're living in America, you should do it," said Burks, 31. "You help out your community, you help your parents, your children. Even if doesn't help you, it's going to help somebody else."
Jeff Kunerth can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5392