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ALBUQUERQUE — Census workers faced a big job when they began going door to door Saturday to interview people who didn’t mail in their questionaires because New Mexico residents returned their forms at a lower rate than almost any other state.
The Census Bureau’s preliminary state-by-state figures show 63 percent of New Mexicans mailed back their 2010 forms, falling below the 65 percent rate for the last census in 2000. The national rate was 72 percent that year, the same as this year’s mail-in rate.
Only Alaska, at 62 percent, fell behind New Mexico.
The census announced this week 28 states have matched or exceeded their 2000 mail-in rates, and 11 others came within a percentage point of doing so.
The count is important to states because it’s used to distribute billions of dollars in federal aid, apportion seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and draw boundaries of congressional, legislative and other elective office districts.
The biggest gaps in New Mexico seem to be in rural areas, said a Census Bureau spokeswoman in Albuquerque, Veronica A. Reyes.
“Maybe people (in rural areas) have not been as aware of how crucial
participation is,” Reyes said. Some also might fear where the information is going or how it will be used, she said.
Southwestern New Mexico’s Catron County had the lowest participation rate at 22 percent. South-central Lincoln County had a 35 percent rate, while northern Colfax County was at 40 percent.
About 4,200 census-takers — drawn from local residents as much as possible — have been hired to raise the state’s count. Carrying ID badges, they’ll be doing in-person interviews until July 10.
“If they see someone familiar, they might be more inclined to say, ‘Well, my neighbor’s doing it so maybe it’s OK that I do it, too,’” Reyes said.
Urban areas have done well in encouraging residents to mail back the census, she said.
Bernalillo County, home to the state’s largest city, Albuquerque, recorded a 70 percent rate of forms being returned. Rates for other more urban counties include Sandoval, 68 percent; Chaves, 67 percent; Dona Ana, 65 percent; and San Juan, 64 percent. Los Alamos County, which Reyes called “a community that is very well informed about the importance” of the census, had a mail-back rate of 82 percent.
With the mail-in deadline past, Reyes said the Census Bureau is switching from urging people to return questionnaires to making sure people know there’s still time to be counted.
“Workers will be out in the community; please participate, open the door to the census worker when they come and knock,” Reyes said.
Traditionally, Hispanics have participated in the count at lower rates than other racial and ethnic groups. About 69 percent of Hispanic households returned their 2000 forms by mail, compared with 79 percent for non-Hispanics, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Hispanics account for about 45 percent of New Mexico’s population — the largest figure for any state. Reyes said census officials have done substantial outreach and don’t believe Hispanic participation in New Mexico will necessarily end up low this year.