WASHINGTON – Maryland’s response rate to the 2000 census was 1 percent below the relatively disappointing level of 70 percent for the 1990 census, according to figures released Tuesday by the Census Bureau.
The state average of 69 percent was still ahead of the national average return of 67 percent of homes in 2000, officials reported Tuesday, but well shy of the 75 percent target that government officials had set for Maryland.
While federal officials hailed their “great success” for increasing the national return rate by 2 percentage points, state officials said they hoped a final accounting that includes door-to-door responses would boost Maryland’s return rate. But they said they were encouraged, nonetheless.
“We are pleased that Maryland is above the national average. We hope to remain higher, when final figures are delivered to the president later this year,” said Marvin Masterson, director of operations for the Governor’s Census 2000 Office.
“Since Maryland has a highly mobile and diverse population, this average is encouraging,” Masterson said.
A federal official echoed those reasons for the possible downturn in Maryland’s response rate since 1990.
“Maryland has over the years witnessed a massive increase in the number of foreigners settling in the state,” said Fernando Armstrong, a regional director for the Census Bureau, whose jurisdiction includes Maryland.
“Many of these people cannot speak English and hence it is difficult for them to understand the questionnaire and fill them out,” said Armstrong. “That is why Baltimore City, which has a strong minority population, records a low response rate.”
Baltimore’s return rate of 53 percent this year was 10 percentage points below the 1990 return rate of 63 percent. State officials had said that an undercount in Baltimore in 1990 contributed heavily to a state undercount, which likely cost Maryland tens of millions in federal aid over the decade.
The Census Bureau reported Maryland received $2,185 in federal aid per person in 1990, the 19th-highest in the nation. By 1997, the aid had risen to $2,905 per person but the state ranking for per capita aid had fallen to 27th place.
Armstrong also said the prominent urban-rural divide in the state adds to the complexity of the census process, resulting in a drop in response rates.
The lowest response rate in the state was recorded in Worcester County, where only 31 percent of the people sent back their questionnaire.
Worcester County officials attributed the low response to the transient, seasonal population of Ocean City, and said they hope to get federal officials to adjust the return rate because of that. They said a similar adjustment 10 years ago helped the county record a 65 percent return rate in the 1990 census.
“Counties or states that have resort areas will show a low response rate,” said Bob Nelson, planner for Worcester County’s Department of Comprehensive Planning.
“For us, Ocean City is the problem,” Nelson said. “A lot of people have houses, but live in them only during the season. They do not reside in the city most of the year and hence do not fill the questionnaire.”
Armstrong said he could not comment on the Worcester County return rate without taking a closer look at the numbers.