Ventura County plans to hit the 1990s with a bilingual public relations blitz to prepare residents for the head count of the decade.
Notices in Spanish and English urging residents to be counted in the 1990 census will soon go out with welfare checks and hospital bills. They will be sent home with schoolchildren and posted on buses. They will be broadcast on radio and television. Churches and clubs will be enlisted to help spread the word. Volunteers will go to factories and into fields, encouraging people to fill out their forms on Census Day, April 1.
"With every welfare check and every food stamp we'll be saying, 'Please, fill out this form,' " said county Supervisor Madge Schaefer. "It's the very people who would benefit most from an accurate count who are the ones most apt not to complete the census information: the illegals, the homeless and the elderly."
The county plans to work with its 10 cities to bring out their residents as well as those in unincorporated areas. But because Oxnard has Ventura County's largest concentration of Latinos, some of whom are afraid to be counted because they are illegal residents or live in illegal dwellings, the city plans its own campaign in addition to the county's, said Karl Lawson of the city's Community Services Department.
"We may have to get hundreds of high school students to volunteer to help people fill out forms," he said. "But we're going to make it easy. We are going to educate the public so they understand how crucial it is."
At stake is about $20 million that the county could recoup over the next 10 years, Schaefer said. That money comes from sales, gas and other taxes paid by residents. The money goes to the federal and state governments, which in turn return a portion to counties and cities based on their populations.
"If we make an effort now, we will reap the rewards for 10 years," Schaefer said.
The 1980 census undercounted the U.S. population by about 1.4%, said John Reeder, the Census Bureau's regional director for California. Statewide, the undercount was 3%. About 5.9% of blacks were undercounted, Reeder said, and he estimates the undercount at the same level for Latinos and American Indians.
In Ventura County, the undercount figure ranged from 1% in more affluent neighborhoods to 5% in lower-income level areas, county officials said.
Those figures are final counts, including those collected from mailed responses and from census workers who went to individual addresses whose occupants had not returned forms by mail.
Reeder had no estimates for the census ahead.
"We hope the undercount is zero," he said.
The 1990 census asks for the name, age, marital status, ethnic background and income of each person living at each residence. The questions seem simple but the form can be complicated.
For instance, question No. 4 offers 15 different boxes to check for race, including Asian Indian, American Indian, Guamanian and Samoan. But none of the races listed is Latino or Hispanic. Then, question No. 7 asks separately whether the individual is Hispanic or Spanish. In another section, the heading over Pages 6 and 7 says "Please answer these questions for Person 1 on Page 2," instructions that might leave many puzzled if not frustrated.
Officials hope that volunteers and the public information campaign will overcome those problems.
In addition, county and Oxnard workers are comparing their lists of addresses to those of the Census Bureau.
"We now have people going through records checking new neighborhoods and other areas that were undercounted in the last census," said Keith Turner, head of the county's planning division.
Any of those addresses must be turned in to the Census Bureau by Jan. 5 to be part of the national March mailing, he said, but the final deadline to return forms is June 30.
For the first time this year, the Census Bureau is allowing homeless people to be counted, even though they have no addresses. Law enforcement and social services employees are compiling lists of areas where the homeless congregate or sleep. On March 20 and 21, census workers will go to those areas to count the homeless. The county's homeless population has been roughly estimated at about 3,000.
In addition, on March 20 and 21, the county plans to open its parks for free camping, and cities and counties statewide are petitioning the governor to open the state's armories to the homeless to augment the numbers that census counters can reach.
About the middle of April, census workers will begin knocking on doors of the households that did not return forms.
Meanwhile, the county and Oxnard will continue their outreach campaigns through June.
"We have to convince them that this information does not go to the city code inspector, it does not go to Immigration, and it does not go to the IRS," said Oxnard's Lawson. "We have to let them know that, 'Look, even if you just jumped over the border today, we want to count you.' "