States gear up for 2010 census

COLUMBIA - To whom it may concern, be you California, Texas, Pennsylvania, Kentucky ... even you, Georgia.

South Carolina would like its $1 billion back.

That's what Bobby Bowers estimates South Carolina will lose this decade because in 2000 the state's population was undercounted by 48,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

"We think they missed well over 100,000, all told," said Mr. Bowers, the director of the state Budget and Control Board's research and statistics division.

That lost $1 billion has long since been allocated to other states' coffers.

Mr. Bowers is determined to avoid that same mistake in 2010.

"It is a federal program," Mr. Bowers said he told one politician. "But the feds don't suffer if we get a bad count. You suffer, cities and counties suffer, our constituents suffer."

Midway through 2007, South Carolina, Georgia and other states already are prepping for the next census, capitalizing on the funds lawmakers have invested in hopes of getting the biggest share possible of the spoils to be had when the next census draws to an end.

What's at stake?

An estimated $3 trillion in federal funds over 10 years, 435 U.S. House seats and the power, influence and quality of life that comes with all of the above.

Who gets what depends largely on who lives where.

As it stands, Georgia is expected to pick up another congressional seat after the 2010 census, which would give the state 14 representatives.

South Carolina could pick up a seventh seat - but only if the numbers work out and the count is right.

"All of this is predicated on one thing," Mr. Bowers said. "You know what that one thing is? How good a count we get."

Finding and correctly adding up 300 million people is a difficult task.

It's even more complicated in states such as South Carolina, where 41 percent of people didn't return their census form last time, the second-lowest response rate in the country, behind Alaska.

South Carolina also has a large, growing number of Hispanics, and Mr. Bowers and his Georgia counterpart, Robert Giacomini, say they can be hard to find and accurately count.

Census personnel don't ask about a person's legal status.

But, Mr. Bowers said, many Hispanics don't know that or are otherwise skittish of governmental officials.

"We've got to overcome the fear factor," he said.

He plans to work with Hispanic leadership to let Hispanics know that "Hey, nobody's going to bother you. You're using services. You need to be counted, so we can get funding for those services."

Across the country this summer, states have begun training for the Local Update of Census Address program.

It is part of the run-up to the census, in which local and federal governments work together to try to build an accurate database of addresses.

That database - once verified and agreed on - becomes the basis for the actual census, which will be taken in the spring of 2010.

This year, for the first time, lawmakers gave Mr. Bowers' office money - $1 million - to help gear up for the census.

Mr. Giacomini said Georgia funded the training sessions last time.

"We have a coordinated state effort, which most states do not," he said. "It probably got us that 13th (congressional) seat."

Reach Kirsten Singleton at (803) 414-6611 or kirsten.singleton@morris.com.

CENSUS RESPONSE

Experts point to South Carolinians' low response rate as one key reason why the state's population undercount is high. Response rates for 2000:

South Carolina: 59 percent

- Calhoun County: 47 percent (Lowest)

- Dorchester County: 66 percent (Highest)

- Beaufort County: 55 percent

- Jasper County: 50 percent

- Aiken County: 59 percent

Source: U.S. Census Bureau