[Hpn] Fw: For Some, the Census Pays -- in Cash (WP 4-19-00)

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From: "Laurel Hahlen" <homeless@surfsouth.com>
Sent: Wednesday, April 19, 2000 9:13 PM
Subject: For Some, the Census Pays -- in Cash (WP 4-19-00)
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For Some, the Census Pays -- in Cash

By D'Vera Cohn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 19, 2000; Page A01


Valdosta, a city in southern Georgia, had a problem. With the deadline
nearing to return census forms, fewer than half the households had done so.
So the city council announced a reward: Bring in a completed form and get a
$5 bill.

The cash incentive and the buzz it generated pumped the return rate up 10
percentage points in just five days, City Manager Larry H. Hanson said. When
census numbers are in, Valdosta officials hope the city will attract new
federal money and private investment.

This is not the only community that tried a little something extra this
time. There were prizes and freebies, cash drawings and cash payments, all
aimed at nudging people to do their civic duty. With apathy and suspicion
about government driving down participation rates, local officials looked to
marketing for inspiration.

The Census Bureau itself is running an experiment, trying to test the
success of these incentives. But rewards and prizes also have their critics,
even in the bureau. Does it cheapen the census if people are paid to obey
the law? Does it undermine the concept of the census as a civic obligation?

By last week, only 62 percent of households had mailed back forms.
Questionnaires not received by yesterday will prompt a visit from
census-takers, who will knock on doors beginning next week and continuing
through early July.

Return rates have been available daily on the Internet, and this instant
access has fired up competition among communities. In Georgia, two other
communities near Valdosta offered rebates on utility bills to people who
sent back census papers. Other cities handed out blankets, meals and even
toiletries to homeless people.

Minnesota gave a dollar to state prison inmates who completed a form this
month. The money did not come from taxpayers, emphasized corrections
spokeswoman Shari Burt, but from canteen receipts and other funds from
inmates. Although the state knows how many inmates there are, the census
form provides other valuable information, she said.

Then there are the census lotteries. Several college towns--Ames, Iowa;
Mount Pleasant, Mich.; and Morgantown, W.Va., among them--have put up
thousands of dollars in prizes as an incentive to students to claim
residency. Knoxville, Tenn., and its surrounding county also held a prize
drawing for people who filed census forms.

After the 1990 Census, the first to have a worse undercount than the one
before, census officials twice studied the idea of a national sweepstakes
but rejected it for this head count. They were concerned it could send a
mixed message. They worried about a backlash from religious groups. And they
lacked time for research and testing.

"It is an idea that keeps popping to the fore," said LaVerne Collins, a
spokeswoman for the bureau. Other government surveys use incentives, she
said, and it is a growing trend in private industry: "People do seem to want
something for their time."

Although they have rejected a prize drawing, for now, census officials are
considering other incentives. They are running a controlled experiment,
involving about 15,000 households, to see whether offering free 30-minute
calling cards draws forms in. Results should be in by the end of the year.

Valdosta officials are anxious. They want the count to tally 50,000
residents. That benchmark would turn this city into a metropolitan area,
which means higher Medicaid and Medicare payments, larger federal grants and
more interest from prospective employers and retailers. The last census
estimate, in 1998, put the city at 41,390.

"What we are looking at is an investment to help the city achieve a very
important status that will prevent us from losing millions of dollars,"
Hanson said.

Hanson said regional census officials approved of the idea. Ninety-three
people took advantage of Valdosta's offer, and Hanson said the publicity
inspired others to file their forms without claiming a reward. But the
Southeastern Legal Foundation, an Atlanta-based conservative nonprofit
group, has challenged the propriety and legality of the payments.

"The ones who have been good citizens are getting punished and the bad ones
are getting rewarded," said foundation President Matthew J. Glavin.

Like Valdosta, Ames, Iowa, also longs for metropolitan status. One way to
get it is by making sure thousands of Iowa State University students file as
Ames residents. Although students are supposed to be counted where they
spend most of the year--at school--many are listed at their parents'
addresses.

So Ames held a drawing, on the theme of "Claim Ames in the 2000 Census,"
offering $7,000 in prizes to students and others who turned in completed
forms.

"We got thousands back," said Clare Bills, spokeswoman for the city. "A good
guesstimate would be 7,000."

Not everyone was thrilled. "We had students who said, 'We think you are
bribing us,' " Bills said.

Knoxville-Knox County officials received 4,000 entries in their census
contest, which had a top prize of $2,500. Things did not work out exactly as
planned, though. So far, mail-back rates are not very good.

"However," said city public information officer Marie Alcorn, "who knows who
can say what would have happened if we had not done this?"


 2000 The Washington Post Company

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