Census forms to hit mailboxes this month

February 26, 2010
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Ten questions plus 10 minutes equals billions of dollars and political clout.

That’s the equation being touted by the U.S. Census Bureau, which this month will send out millions of questionnaires for the 2010 population count, as mandated by the U.S. Constitution.

The decennial census is used to re-draw the lines of political districts and to calculate the distribution of $4 billion in federal money, said Terry Satchell, local census office manager.

The basic count is the building block for the kind of marketing information that businesses need, said Dante Villarreal, regional director for the Michigan Small Business & Technology Development Center, housed at Grand Valley State University and covering the Grand Rapids area.

“The more and better the information that business owners have, the better decisions they are going to be able to make — and in today’s tough economic climate, this is very, very important,” he said.

West Michigan Partnership Specialist Pat MacDonell said 450 business, churches, schools, nonprofits and other organizations have volunteered help the Census Bureau encourage a full county.

She said the bureau’s 2010 Census Portrait of America Road Tour would bring its trailer-sized display to Holland West School on Friday, to the Steil Boys & Girls Club at 235 Straight St. NW in Grand Rapids Friday night, and to the Home & Garden Show at DeVos Place over the weekend.

Satchell said forms are expected to be mailed out in mid-March, asking people to describe their households and families as of April 1.

“We would like everybody to hold still for one moment in time and take a snapshot of where people reside,” Satchell said.

The local census office opened in October 2008 and hired 1,500 temporary workers to canvass for addresses from Holland north throughout the Upper Peninsula, he said. Currently, the office is responsible for Kent and Ottawa counties, and he expects to hire another 1,500 temporary workers to follow up on those who fail to return their forms. He said he expects an initial response rate of 70 percent.

The SBTDC provides free U.S. Census information for small businesses, said Lindsay Martin, graduate market research assistant.

“Small businesses use the census more often for consumer spending of disposable income. That’s an important number that they like to look at,” Martin said. “Also, demographic profiles and the census update trends. They use this information to determine the local as well as the demographics of potential consumers.”

“We can offer secondary market research to our customers,” Martin added. “We can generate competitor lists, nationally, by state, by county, also by zip code. We can produce industry reports and financial metrics on particular industries.”

Statistics come not just from the population-count questionnaire, but from the American Community Survey, an ongoing update of detailed information based on statistical sampling, as well as the Census Bureau’s survey work for other units of government, Martin added. Villarreal said the SBTDC also subscribes to specialized databases.

In Census 2000, one-sixth of addresses received a longer form with more detailed questions. The American Community Survey replaces that long questionnaire.

GVSU Marketing Professor Paul Lane said the U.S. Census Bureau’s Web site has information of interest to small businesses at: www.census.gov

The bureau sparked some concern by changing its methodology after Census 2000, by tying Kent County to Barry, Ionia and Newaygo counties into a Metropolitan Statistical Area with an estimated 776,833 residents. The bureau placed Ottawa and Muskegon counties into their own MSAs.

Previously, the MSA included Ottawa and Muskegon along with Kent, and had just touched 1 million people. Some expressed concerns that the region would lose out on a myriad of opportunities with the, but Lane dismissed those concerns.

“People are digging deeper than the surface,” he said.

The bureau also introduced a seven-county Combined Statistical Area, which encompasses Allegan, Barry, Ionia, Kent, Muskegon, Newaygo and Ottawa. That population was estimated at 1.3 million in 2008.

Lane said census information helps businesses locate and define areas with their target demographics, such as age range, income levels, ethnicity and housing stock.

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