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U.S. Census Return Rate: Connecticut Beating National Average


April 23, 2010

People in Haddam are participators. Voters typically turn out in force for each election, and whenever the schools send out surveys, the response is always better than average, town and school officials said.

So it was not a big surprise that the Connecticut River town of about 8,000 residents has the state's highest U. S. Census form return rate — 85 percent, according to recently released figures. With about a week to go before the May 1 deadline, the state as a whole is returning more census questionnaires than the national average — 73 percent, compared with a national return rate of 71 percent.

In Connecticut, smaller, relatively affluent towns such as Marlborough, Tolland, Avon [second place at 84 percent] and Haddam have posted the highest return rates.

"We're just great people! That's it. We follow the rules," Haddam's assistant town clerk, Anna Riebold, said.

Riebold laughed at her boast, and the actual reason for the high return rate probably has more to do with the town's homogeneity [about 97 percent white] than with residents' characters.

"We shouldn't be at all surprised that towns like Haddam and Avon show up with high response rates, because homogeneity is probably the single best predictor of census participation," said Orlando Rodriguez, former manager of the Connecticut State Data Center.

"Upper-middle class neighborhoods tend to be homogeneous, but you don't get much homogeneity at the lower end of the economic spectrum — it's too much of a mix," said Rodriguez, a fellow at Connecticut Voices for Children who interprets census data and their effect on federal reimbursement formulas and other issues.

The Census Bureau participation rates reflect the percentage of households in each town that have returned questionnaires. On May 3, the bureau will begin an eight-week canvass of every town to gather information from those who failed to return the form. Canvassers will revisit homes up to six times to get as close as possible to a complete count.

Among the lowest return rates were those in some of the state's largest and poorest communities — only 57 percent in both Hartford and Bridgeport, for example.

"Households at the lower end of the economic ladder often have lower response rates," Rodriguez said, "because many recent immigrants, even if they are here legally, are afraid of what happens to them when they reply to a government form."

But low return rates in some smaller towns, especially in the Northwest Corner, have much more to do with wealth than poverty. Litchfield County's bucolic enclaves have traditionally served as weekend retreats for people whose primary homes are in Manhattan, a trend that intensified until the national recession began in 2008. Many of these weekenders ignore census forms sent to their second homes because they have already returned a form where they live year round.

"One in four homes in some of these towns in the Northwest Corner is owned by what we now call ‘splitters' — people who spend some of their time in Cornwall or Sharon, but their primary residence, and where they vote, is in New York or Florida," said David Grossman of Cornwall, a former budget director for New York City who has studied the demographics and lifestyles of Litchfield County weekenders. "Of course they don't return census forms up here. They have already filed forms down there."

The Census Bureau only wants to count people where they live and sleep most of the time, said Anna Maria Garcia of Glastonbury, an attorney with the Census Bureau who manages the Connecticut count out of the bureau's regional office in Boston.

But Grossman said he hopes that the bureau aggressively tracks "splitters" this year, because he considers them an important national trend. In the past 10 years, he said, Cornwall has issued permits for about seven to 10 new houses a year, but the full-time population has remained stable. Almost all of the new homes, he concluded, are for weekend and vacation use only, an important development to track as the huge postwar baby-boom generation begins to retire.

"In America, it's always been as important to document the mobile population as carefully as the stable population," Grossman said. "America's middle class is increasingly becoming a two-household society, and those homes need services and have other impacts. So it's vital that we document all the ‘splitters,' too."

Bolton Town Administrator Joyce Stille said she's worried that many homeowners in her town won't be counted at all. In a huge mixup, census questionnaires for Bolton were addressed to Manchester, instead. Everything on the address labels, including the Bolton ZIP code, was correct — except the town was listed as Manchester, Stille said.The Manchester post office, which handles bulk mail to Bolton, sent all of the incorrectly addressed forms back to the Census Bureau without informing any Bolton officials, Stille said.

When a new round of questionnaires was sent out, the addresses still listed "Manchester," again with the correct ZIP code for Bolton, Stille said.

This second round of forms, however, did make it to Bolton households, she said, and census officials assured her that because the forms had the correct ZIP code, the count would be accurate for Bolton.

Because of all the confusion, Stille said, she is monitoring the situation closely.

"Bolton stands a great chance of being undercounted," Stille said. "That impacts our town in a lot of ways."

Garcia said that the Bolton situation was isolated. Nationwide, she said, census officials have been heartened by the national return rate of 71 percent. They had worried that the sour national mood would depress returns and force a more costly canvassing of neighborhoods.

"This is huge for us because of the cost savings of not having to return with so many workers to neighborhoods," Garcia said. "We suspected going into the census this year that people feeling alienated from government might be a big factor, so we really hit the ground with an aggressive effort at advertising and encouraging town governments to get the word out to fill in forms. The response numbers now show that this has paid off."

For the 2000 Census,Connecticut's return rate of mail-in forms was 75 percent. Census officials are optimistic that the state can beat that rate this time.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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