As the campaign to ensure a complete and accurate count of every American in this year’s census gets off the ground, a new survey of American attitudes toward participating in the census shows that young Americans, members of the Millennial Generation, born 1982-2003, may prove least likely to stand up and be counted. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that roughly one-third of 18-29 year olds hadn’t heard of the census, and even after having the process described to them, 17 percent were still unaware of just what the census involved. This lack of knowledge translated directly into this key demographic segment’s unwillingness to participate, with only 36 percent of 18-29 year olds indicating that they “definitely” would respond to the form when it arrives, compared to large majorities in all other age segments who said they would do so.
The Census Bureau has a plan to address this lack of knowledge, but it’s not clear yet if its approach will successfully reach, let alone motivate, this generation. This month the Bureau launched the first ad about the census as part of an overall $340 million public awareness campaign, $133 million of which will be spent on television advertising.
The new ad features one of Hollywood’s best-known environmentalists, Ed Begley, Jr. in another of his satirical roles portraying a clueless corporate executive. In the Census Bureau ads he plays a Hollywood director pitching the idea of taking a literal snapshot of everyone in American all at once, even as others in the spot point out that the Census Bureau already has a plan to “get the shot.” All the actors in this humorous spot are white Baby Boomers, two generations older than Millennials and not exactly the demographic most needing to be educated about the census. Maybe even more serious, broadcast television is not the Millennials’ favorite way to absorb information.
More promising is the allocation of much of the rest of the awareness campaign’s budget for social networking and appearances at major crowd events like the Super Bowl and Daytona 500. In addition, information on the need to respond to the census will be translated into 27 different languages, which will help with the very multi-ethnic Millennial generation as well as Latinos and Asian of all ages. Still, the campaign needs to go beyond awareness if it wants to convince Millennials to participate.
Those who know what the census is used for, and that participation is required by law, are much more likely to say they will definitely participate. But the survey found that only 15 percent of Millennials knew that the law requires their participation. Only about half knew that the final count will be used to allocate government money to their community and determine its level of representation in Congress. They also represented the smallest group to know that the census will not be used to locate illegal immigrants. Millennials are more than willing to participate in civic activities and follow social rules, but right now they are dangerously uninformed about why they need to be a part of the nation’s most important decennial civic undertaking.
Millennials continually share information with each other to reach a group consensus on what they should do next. Someone other than those with strictly Boomer sensibilities needs to engage the generation in a conversation about the census. If that happens, America will have gone a long way toward ensuring a complete and accurate snapshot of its increasingly diverse, and youthful, population.
Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are fellows of the New Democrat Network and the New Policy Institute and co-authors of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics (Rutgers University Press: 2008), named one of the 10 favorite books by the New York Times in 2008.
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