CHRISTIANSBURG – The U.S. Census Bureau officially set up shop in Christiansburg Wednesday during an opening ceremony for its local office in the Oak Tree complex.
Local officials, census representatives, and special guest keynote speaker Dr. James I. Robertson, Jr. attended the event. The Christiansburg-based census office will serve 18 counties: Bland, Buchanan, Carroll, Dickenson, Floyd, Giles, Grayson, Lee, Montgomery, Patrick, Pulaski, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Washington, Wise and Wythe, and the cities of Bristol, Galax, Norton and Radford.
The 2010 Census form will be sent out to every household in America in March, said Somonica Green, deputy regional director of the Charlotte region, which encompasses areas of Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and North and South Carolina. The questionnaire, which consists of 10 questions, takes about 10 minutes to complete, Green said.
“We are ready, having developed a complete and correct address list that we will use to mail out and deliver census questionnaires in March 2010,” Green said. “The decennial census has always been a dynamic undertaking, and the 2010 Census will continue that tradition.”
Along with advances is census taking methods and technology, the Census Bureau has garnered thousands of local partners to help spread the word about the 2010 Census, Green said. Montgomery County has already formed a Complete Count Committee comprised of local leaders to make sure everyone is counted during the upcoming census, which helps the U.S. Government decide how to distribute more than $400 billion a year, among other things, Green said. The CCC members will also help spread the word to citizens that the census is safe, easy to fill out, and important, she said.
“Throughout the 230-plus history of our nation, the census has played a crucial role for the people,” Green said. “The high purposes of the census are rich with the meaning of democracy.”
Green said the Bureau estimates about 60 percent of American households will return their census forms this year. The results will then be compiled and handed to the president in December, 2010, she said. For those who do not return their census forms, the Bureau is set to hire more than a million census takers nationwide, who will go door-to-door collecting results from the estimated 40 percent who will not respond, Green said. About 1,300 of those jobs will be available in western Virginia, she said.
Christiansburg Mayor Richard Ballengee, Blacksburg Mayor Ron Rordam, and County Board of Supervisors Chair Annette Perkins said they are excited about the number of jobs the Census Bureau will bring to the area, and that they are prepared to do whatever they can to help with the task.
“By the time March rolls around, I am certain that our citizens are going to be aware of the census-taking activities and how important those activities really are for us.,” Perkins said.
The County’s CCC has already distributed 2010 Census information during Virginia Tech’s Gobblerfest and the Blacksburg Holiday Parade, with plans to distribute more at other events throughout the months leading up to the census, Perkins said. She said she hopes to have a 75 percent rate in the County.
Ballengee said he is looking forward to learning more about the demographics in Christiansburg, the fourth largest town in Virginia, with an estimated 15,000 residents.
“This new census is going to show, we feel, that we have in excess of 20,000 residents,” Ballengee said. “And with the distribution of 400 billion dollars, we want to make sure that we get some of that money.”
Ballengee said he and the Christiansburg Town Council and staff will make sure to publicize the census and to tell citizens that the census is an important tool, not an opportunity for the government to spy on residents.
Green said that the information in the U.S. Census is protected by law. Information on specific individuals cannot be seen by anyone outside of the Census Bureau, she said. Violation of this law is punishable by up to a $250,000 fine, five years in jail, or both, Green said.
“I can tell you, no one at the Census Bureau that I know has $250,000 to spare,” Green said.
It is important to return the census questionnaires and assist census workers because the answers to the census will help define America for the next 10 years, Green said.
Dr. James I. Robertson, Jr., an Alumni Distinguished Professor in Tech’s History Dept. and a renowned Civil War expert, knows the value of the census first-hand. As a member of the Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission, one of his and the commission’s pet projects has been documenting the 1860 Census to learn more about what those who died in the war and what life was like during that time, Robertson said. His goal is to have annotated copies of the 1860 Census from every county in Virginia, Robertson said.
“Let me say you are making history,” Robertson said. “You don’t know it, but you are, because a hundred years from now, somebody may be looking back on what you’re doing.”
Robertson himself transcribed and corrected Montgomery County’s 1860 Census through his research. There have been great advances in census taking since this time, Robertson said. In those days, questionnaires were not mailed out. A census worker stopped by households only once, and if residents were not home at the time, they were not counted, he said. Although the 1860 Census was excellent compared to other earlier censuses (which have been taken since 1790), the documents are full of errors, which he has had to fill in with information from the tombstones in local cemeteries, Robertson said.
“The tombstones correct the mistakes of the census takers, because the tombstones are going to give us full names and they’re going to give us life dates,” Robertson said. “The census did not give life dates, and Lord knows, it never gave full names. These guys were not paid by how much they wrote down, so they wrote down as little they could when they did the census.”
The censuses of this time period, categorized into districts, listed family heads and their occupations and personal assets, but full names were not commonly put down on the forms, Robertson said. Sometimes large families would not list names for their children, he said. Occupational information was often vague or inaccurate, Robertson said. During the 1860 census in Henrico County, near Richmond, one man listed his occupation as “lover.”
Information was taken to some one who could write legibly to transcribe after census takers gathered it, Robertson said. However, it was often transcribed in handwriting rife with flourishes, which obscured some of the letters, he said.
Robertson encouraged residents to fill out the census form because the information is not only important in this day and age, but it could be important in the future as well.
“This is a very important job,” Robertson said. “It’s a vital job. It’s a job that is absolutely necessary for the continuation of this country as a nation. So when the census comes, be sure and fill it out.”