WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The $15 billion U.S. Census is near completion with a response rate unchanged from a decade ago, defying concerns it might be derailed by anti-government sentiment and widespread violence against census takers.
Conservative figures like television commentator Glenn Beck and Republican Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann had urged Americans to provide only minimal information on the census form.
That sparked fears that Obama administration critics such as supporters of the limited-government Tea Party movement would hinder the once-in-a-decade project.
But now that the counting is nearly done, government officials and political analysts say there is no sign that the political climate had much impact on the census.
The mail-in response rate for the 10-question census was unchanged at 72 percent from 2000, bucking a national trend showing declining participation in surveys of any kind. And despite technical challenges, it is on schedule and under budget.
“This proves that Americans still have common sense,” said political analyst Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “You’re only hurting your own localities when you don’t fill in your form.”
The U.S. Constitution requires a count of every U.S. resident once every 10 years. The resulting data determine how many seats a state gets in the U.S. House of Representatives and how some $400 billion of federal funding for hospitals, schools and other infrastructure is parceled out.
The sheer scale of an effort to count 134 million households makes it “a convenient target for limited government and anti-government advocates,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former congressional aide and census consultant.
Sabato said calls for boycotting the census came from a fringe element of conservatives, and the Republican congressional caucus had encouraged participation.
With most of the information gathered, workers will soon begin compiling and analyzing the statistics to deliver final results to President Barack Obama by December 31.
Census Bureau officials, fearing an anti-government backlash, have been closely tracking assaults and violence against census workers since the survey began in March.
Incidents now number 500 including gunshots and one Alaska man chasing a worker with a bulldozer, up from 180 in 2000.
But Census Director Robert Groves said he sees no evidence that the attacks were part of a big anti-government trend. The overall number is still “a very, very small percentage” of the 100 million or so housecalls made by census workers to around 48 million homes, he said last week.
“I can’t make a big case that this is huge anti-government sentiment that motivated this. I don’t see a pattern.”
Kimball Brace, a Virginia-based expert and member of an independent census advisory panel, said advertising helped defuse public concerns about the census.
The ad campaign included use of social media, public service announcements from personalities as diverse as President George W. Bush’s former chief of staff Karl Rove and Nickelodeon’s Dora the Explorer television character, as well as pricey television ads during the January Super Bowl.
Brace said the benefits were evident when he accompanied census workers to rural areas in Virginia and other areas with residents often considered “hard to count.”
“I saw more ‘no trespassing’ signs than I’ve ever seen in my life,” Brace said. “People were suspicious, but when we said ‘We’re with the census,’ there was this recognition that I don’t think we would have had without the media (campaign).”
Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Xavier Briand