Look for the Census forms in your mailboxes

On Halloween, children in the small suburban city of West Park in Broward County got candy wrapped in the 2010 Census logo. For the holidays, the city printed up Census-branded calendars.

At every holiday, at every public event in the past several months, Census tchotchkes rained upon West Park's 14,000 predominantly minority residents: mugs and cups, T-shirts, pens, canvas bags, door hangers. Pillboxes and first-aid kits for its seniors. And enough lawn signs for every home in the city.

On Monday, when Census questionnaires begin hitting 120 million mailboxes across the nation, ``people in West Park can't say that they don't know about it,'' said Vice Mayor Felicia Brunson, who spearheaded the drive and, on Saturday, led a Census parade through the city.

Probably no small municipality has done more to make sure every resident responds to the 2010 Census than West Park: it was not tallied in 2000 because it did not yet exist, and so was concerned about an undercount given its majority black, Hispanic and immigrant population.

But it's far from an isolated example.

The West Park campaign, financed by six federal grants totaling $18,000, is just one small piece in what the Census Bureau describes as the largest civic outreach and awareness campaign in U.S. history.

The marketing budget alone is $326 million. It paid for a jokey $2.5 million Super Bowl spot starring Ed Begley Jr. for which the Census Bureau took some heat. The Census is sponsoring a NASCAR team. There have been ads in 28 languages, including spots by U.S. winter Olympic athletes like Cuban-American Miami speedskater Jennifer Rodriguez. A Census Road Tour criss-crossed the country, hitting NASCAR races, the Super Bowl in Miami, snowboarding competitions and the NBC Today show in New York.

Because children are often the Census' entree into recently arrived families, Sesame Street characters Rosita and, naturally, The Count visited schools, including Nova Blanche Forman Elementary School in Broward.

Major national nonprofits, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and United Way, have joined in. So have retailers like Walgreens and Target, which is printing the Census logo on its shopping bags.

And a Spanish-language TV network wrote a Census theme into a popular soap opera.

But the campaign extends well beyond that to encompass 200,000 organizations, mostly focused on minority communities, that have signed up as unpaid ``partners'' to promote the importance of Census response by starting websites, knocking on doors, holding rallies, handing out fliers, sending out e-mails, and speaking on radio and TV. One group gave free iTunes downloads to people who promised to fill out their forms.

In a multimedia-saturated age, Census officials and boosters call the publicity campaign vital to the decennial headcount's success.

The goal is to reverse a long-standing decline in mail-back rates for the forms, in particular from what Census official call hard-to-count groups: blacks, Hispanics, immigrants and the poor.

Census boosters say capturing as accurate a count as possible is, primarily, a question of fairness. It ensures political representation for all communities as well as an equitable distribution of Census-based federal services -- nearly $500 billion annually for health care for the poor, highway construction, schools and housing assistance, among other programs.

But sending Census enumerators knocking on the doors of those who don't return their forms costs taxpayers big money, too. Every 1 percent increase in the mail-return rate, which was about seven in 10 in 2000, saves the Census Bureau around $85 million, officials say.

``If they did that, millions of dollars will be saved in the Census budget,'' Census Director Robert Groves told reporters earlier this year.

Groves hopes a streamlined questionnaire will help this time. The long form that formerly went to a portion of households has been dropped because the detailed socioeconomic data it generated now comes from a series of continuous population surveys.

The bureau has been stressing the Census form's brevity in its ads: ``Ten questions, 10 minutes.'' Though nine of the questions must be answered for every person in a household, the information is straightforward -- names, ages and birth dates, ethnic and racial make-up.

For the first time ever, the bureau is sending bilingual forms to some areas with high concentrations of Spanish speakers.

The campaign has also stressed Census confidentiality, hoping to allay fears of inappropriate use of data, in particular by undocumented immigrants fearful of government detection. Not even the president, Groves has said, can peek at someone's questionnaire. Nor can Groves, for that matter.

``Our message has been, it's safe and it's easy,'' said Miami-Dade Assistant County Manager Alex Muñoz, who has directed a far-reaching local campaign -- although on a shoestring because of a budget crunch.

But will the expensive and expansive campaign bear fruit?

The question is of obvious import to South Florida, one of the hardest of hard-to-count places in the nation. Public officials for years have argued minority communities are shortchanged in terms of electoral representation and federal funding because of pervasive undercounts here.

A new Brookings Institution report that examined the distribution of Census-based federal aid ranked the three-county South Florida region near the bottom nationally in the amount received for each resident.

Some concerned observers say the testy U.S. public climate doesn't bode well for the counting effort. The U.S. economic crash, and the resulting unemployment and housing foreclosure crisis, will make an accurate count even harder than usual, some say, with many Americans displaced from their homes and not well disposed to filling out government forms.

Add to that a political climate of resentment toward Washington and government in general, and immigrants still reeling from a backlash in the past few years, and some fear a perfect stew of bad news for the Census.

``We are still very concerned in South Dade,'' said Diane Cantor, director of the Centro Campesino Farmworker Center, one of the leading groups pushing for Census participation in the Homestead, Florida City and Redland agricultural areas. ``Many people are still terrified they will be arrested and deported if they respond.''

Cantor, a member of the county's Complete Count Committee, an alliance of local governments, volunteer groups and universities, said Centro Campesino will have workers on site to help residents fill out their forms. Centro has also recruited local unemployed farmworkers to serve in their own community as Census enumerators -- the people who knock on doors when forms aren't returned. Ten passed the test for the $15-an-hour job, she said.

In South Florida, much of the Census-promotion heavy lifting has been done by municipalities, some in coordination with county governments, with cities like Hialeah, Doral, Sweetwater and Miami Lakes doing town hall meetings, block-by-block canvassing and automated phone calls to residents. In Broward, County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman has led an extensive Complete Count campaign.

Because it's cash-strapped, the Miami-Dade committee piggybacked on already scheduled community events, setting up booths and sending volunteer speakers to hundreds of groups and communities. The county also assigned county workers to Census-support work on top of their regular duties.

In 2000, Miami-Dade's mail-response rate was several points lower than the national average.

``We've doubled or tripled our efforts from last time,'' Muñoz said. ``The Census Bureau doesn't give us any money. But the Census is mission critical for us. It's part of our job.''

The local campaign has left the county ``in good shape,'' Shirley Gibson, mayor of Miami Gardens and chair of the Complete Count Committee, told the group at a recent meeting. The issue ``now is, how do we get people to send these forms back? That's our last push.''

In Miami Beach, which recorded the lowest participation rate in Miami-Dade in 2000, Mayor Matti Bower organized an outreach committee last January whose members have gone to the Rebecca Towers senior living facility, passed out papers to grade school students, posted fliers in businesses and established posts at parks for Census workers and training.

``We're trying to encourage everyone in bilingual, trilingual, whatever we need to get people to not be afraid to fill out the form and be counted,'' Bower said.

In Broward's West Park, incorporated in 2005, city leaders felt at a disadvantage. Because there was no one to push the area's residents to fill out Census forms in 2000, official estimates of the new city's population are probably too low at 14,400, they believe.

So this time, with federal funding and political clout potentially in the balance, the new city went all out.

``This will be our first time being officially counted,'' said Brunson, the vice mayor and Census booster. ``We're just trying to do everything humanly possible to get the word out.''

(Miami Herald staff writers David Smiley and Laura Insensee contributed to this report.)