Census mail-in responses lag in Merced County

Merced County residents have so far mailed in fewer completed census forms than the national average.

The U.S. Census Bureau unveiled a mapping tool this week that allows the public to track national, state and local progress in filling out the decennial questionnaires. On Tuesday afternoon, the map showed that 10 percent of Merced County households had already returned their forms, which were mailed last week. The county lags behind the state and national return rates so far, which are 16 percent and 13 percent, respectively.

Broken down further, the city response rates in Merced County are:

Merced: 15 percent

Atwater: 12 percent

Dos Palos: 9 percent

Los Banos: 8 percent

(Figures for Gustine and Livingston weren't available late Tuesday afternoon.)

In California, Mariposa County has the highest return rate so far, at 39 precent; Alpine County has the lowest at six percent. No city in California was listed Tuesday as one of the 50 municipalities nationwide with the highest return rates -- 74 percent -- so far.

Melissa Kelly-Ortega, chairwoman of the local Complete County committee, said she'd hoped the numbers would be higher. The committee is trying to increase local participation rates in the census, which can determine everything from federal funding for local programs and representation in Congress, the statehouse, and even local school boards.

"We're still trying to get the word out as much as possible," Kelly-Ortega said. "We just have to be talking to all of our neighbors and everyone we know, to make sure that people know not to be afraid to fill out the questionnaire and to know there is help out there if they need it."

In 2000, the final Merced County participation rate was 74 percent, or one percentage point higher than the state average, and two percentage points higher than the national average.

One reason for the lower response rate so far this year could be the number of county residents with P.O. boxes listed as their main address. The problem is of particular consequence in smaller, more rural areas, like Planada and Le Grand, said Maricela Rangel-Garcia, a research assistant at the Alliance for Community Research and Development.

In Merced, there are 2,451 P.O. boxes. By contrast, Planada -- with a population that equals one-sixteenth of Merced -- has 1,333.

Kelly-Ortega said the Census Bureau has set up "Be Counted" locations throughout the county where residents can pick up census forms or get help filling them out. To find a Be Counted center, call (866) 872-6868, or visit

All 120 million mailed census forms are due back to the government by April 1.

The Census Bureau says it can save $85 million for every 1 percent increase in the national participation rate, because the bureau would not have to send census takers door to door. If every household mailed back the form, the cost of taking the census would be reduced by $1.5 billion.

Reporter Danielle E. Gaines can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or

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