This April 1 is more than April Fool's Day. It's census day. But the joke may be on us if all Stanislaus County residents are not counted.
Census 2010 is expected to be among the most difficult in the county's history because the housing crisis has caused so much upheaval.
"We fear there may be a much higher nonresponse rate from the mailed questionnaires because of all the foreclosures," said Barbara Ferry, who heads census-taking efforts in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties.
Over 3½ years, more than 17,500 homes in Stanislaus County — 12 percent of all housing units — were lost to foreclosure. Residents in those homes were forced out, and Census 2010 must find where they went.
"The census questionnaires go to the address, not to the person," Ferry said. So if no one lives in a foreclosed home, those questionnaires could remain blank.
The percentage of vacant Stanislaus County homes has nearly doubled in two years, according to U.S. Postal Service statistics. That means many folks who used to live here have either moved out of the county or moved in with other families.
Those displaced residents could cost the county a fortune because billions in federal and state funds are allocated based on the once-a- decade census counts. If Stanislaus County residents are missed by census takers, the county could be financially short-changed for the next 10 years.
"By filling out your census form, you're essentially writing your local community a check for $17,000 for every person in your household," Ferry said.
That's about what every California resident will be worth during the coming decade in terms of census-based state and federal government allocations, according to a Brookings Institution study.
So if census 2010 misses 1,000 Stanislaus residents, it could cost the county $17 million. If it misses 10,000 residents, the impact could be $170 million.
"Holy moly! It adds up really quick," Ferry warned.
Complicating matters further, the Census Bureau estimates 39 percent of Stanislaus County's more than 510,000 residents speak a language other than English while at home. Many of those residents don't read English very well -- or at all.
That's why the Census Bureau considers Stanislaus a difficult-to-count county.
Residents of Mexican heritage -- Stanislaus County's largest ethnic group -- are particularly reticent about filling out government forms, according to Sallie Ayala-Perez, who is coordinating census promotional efforts in Stanislaus for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
"There is a mistrust of how the information will be used," said Perez, whose office is in Turlock. "They shy away from anything having to do with the government."
Perez said her group is spreading the word that personal information collected by the census is kept secret, even from other federal agencies. She said illegal immigrants should not fear they could get deported or into any trouble by filling out the questionnaire.
"Many of those who are not of legal status don't think they're even expected to participate, but it is their right and (a federal) mandate that they be counted," Perez said.
Her group is committed to helping the Census Bureau persuade all Latinos to complete the questionnaire.
"We owe it to ourselves, our children and our community to all be counted," Perez said.
Committees to ensure a complete count are being formed in communities throughout Stanislaus County, but Ferry said more volunteers are needed to promote Census 2010. Outside Modesto and Turlock, she said, committees have not been organized.
"Now is the time we have to get energized and mobilized," Ferry said.
Community members interested in volunteering their talents to encourage census participation can contact Ferry at 235-3476 or StanPartner@gmail.com.
For more information about Census 2010 and efforts to get a complete count, go to www.modbee.com/census.
Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2196.