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It's Census Time, South Carolina. But Can We Get Past the Hangups?

U.S. Census Bureau

The Census. We've been doing it every 10 years since 1790 –  in part because it's in the Constitution and in part because it's really, really important to know how many of us there are and where we live.

That doesn't mean it's exactly easy to convince people to answer a bunch of personal questions. Jan Smiley, South Carolina partnership specialist with the U.S. Census Bureau, says Census takers often have to contend with citizens who are worried about what the bureau wants and what it's going to do with the information it collects.

The short answer, Smiley says, is nothing sinister.

"We don’t share ... information with police departments," she says. "We don’t share this information with a housing authority. We don’t share it with ex-husbands.  We don’t share that information with anybody."

But mistrust runs deep, particularly in poorer black communities. Smiley says African-American communities are some of the most at-risk for being undercounted – and thereby underrepresented – due to historic  suspicions about the role and necessity of the Census.

Sandra Oborokumo, a former Rock Hill City councilwoman and current member of the civic group Rock Hill Race & Reconciliation, says black communities are hard to penetrate with arguments about how much money is at stake (for the record it's about $675 billion a year) and what congressional districts are going to shape up to be, based on head count.

"In their minds they’re not getting it anyway," Oborokumo says of those African-Americans who distrust the Census. "That’s a challenge, just to get people to understand each other and figure out how we get through those barriers."

The main way to do that, both Smiley and Oborokumo say, is to get representatives from within each community. In other words, it is to get neighbors to be Census takers as close to home as possible. Neighbors trust neighbors, Smiley says, which is why she visited Rock Hill recently to reach out to neighborhood representatives -- those people everyone knows from church, for example, are a prime source for recruiting Census takers -- who can, in turn, help get as many neighbors as possible to collect information.

There are, of course, concerns other than community mistrust. There's also worries about being able to do the Census electronically.

'If there was a neighborhood someone was not comfortable going to, we would offer them the opportunity to go in pairs. We’re not going to push anybody to go somewhere they’re uncomfortable going.' ~Jan Smiley

"I have concerns about doing it on computer," says Bethany Marlowe, a retired administrator at Winthrop University. This is the first time the Census will be connected to an app and can be filled out entirely online. Marlowe fears this could trip up people 55 and older who are not comfortable with that kind of technology. But she also worries that poor South Carolinians who may not have access in the first place could be left out of the conversation.

"I just hope that the app and the computer is user-friendly, in such a way that not just older people, but everyone has access," she says.

There also is the issue of Census taker safety. The bureau says it’s falling short of its recruitment goals. One of the reasons could be that knocking on strange doors scares people off. But Smiley says the bureau takes that into account as well.

"In 2010 when I was working the operations out of the Rock Hill office, if there was a neighborhood that someone was not comfortable going, we would offer them the opportunity to go in pairs," she says. "We’re not going to push anybody to go somewhere they’re uncomfortable going."

And, of course, there’s the safety of residents. Smiley admits that some people try to pose as Census takers door to door. But there are things a real one will never try to get from you.

"The Census Bureau will not ask you for a Social Security number," she says. "They will not ask you for a donation. They will not mention a political party, so if anybody shows up at you door saying, ‘Hey, I need your Social Security number to fill out your Census form,’ get a description of them, see if you can see what vehicle they’re driving, and call then when they leave, call the police, because that’s a crime."

Census takers begin counting homeless, college students and seniors by April and begin visiting homes in May.

Scott Morganis the Upstate Multimedia Reporter for South Carolina Public radio. Follow him on Twitter @byscottmorgan

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