Cities Lag in Preparations for Census

Census Generic - Outline of figures and US Flag-Binary code CBS/iStockphoto

With the 2010 census looming, major U.S. cities whose residents are at high risk of being missed are struggling with a shortage of money and manpower to prepare for an accurate count.

A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, released Monday, found several cities with substantially fewer resources than it had in 2000. City officials also expressed concern about a possible poor turnout next year, citing difficulties in finding displaced residents due to home foreclosures and skittish immigrants wary of filling out government forms.

Earlier this month, the Commerce Department ruled out seeking a temporary halt to large-scale immigrant raids as a way to boost participation in hard-to-count communities.

"Nobody is expecting a good census in 2010," said Joseph Salvo, New York City's population division chief. "I'm not optimistic. Since the last census we had 9/11, privacy issues, trust of government issues. And there's been no public declaration that we're going to suspend immigration raids like in 2000."

Pew's review of preparation efforts in 11 major cities, which had undercounts of residents in 2000 of up to 1.5 percent, found only five cities had committed public funds to census outreach Los Angeles, New York, Houston, Phoenix and Baltimore. Even when cities had allotted funds, most were at sharply lower levels compared to 2000, due to the recession that has made state budgets tight.

Los Angeles faces difficulties of finding many of its residents who are now living in foreclosed houses and recreational vehicles, or "doubling up" with friends and relatives in single-family homes. Yet the city's $770,738 budget for outreach work is about half the amount it had in 2000.

Chicago, which missed an estimated 32,000 residents in 2000, spent nearly $1.3 million in city funds a decade ago; this year, it has allocated no money.

Philadelphia, the nation's sixth largest city, has been particularly slow in getting preparations under way, although officials insist they can catch up. A decade ago, the city set aside $200,000 for the census effort, but it has no such funds this time. Philadelphia also has not yet put in place a city outreach committee unlike many other major cities and has been relying on some support staff from the Census Bureau's regional offices.

Other cities with no public funds for census outreach include Atlanta, Boston, Detroit and Pittsburgh.

To boost participation, the Census Bureau is mounting a $300 million national media campaign and partnering with more than 80,000 groups to help get the word out that filling out the 10-question census form is safe and easy. But Census director Robert Groves has acknowledged that the risk of error and missteps in counting remains high, depending partly on factors beyond its control.

Among them:

Whether there is a major outbreak of the H1N1 flu, which could isolate large segments of the U.S. population.

Heated rhetoric over immigration reform, which could incite either side of the debate to seek a boycott or other ways to deter participation.

Distrust of the government, possibly seen in last month's slaying of a part-time census worker in Kentucky, who was found with the word "fed" scrawled on his chest. Door-to-door visits in Clay County have been suspended until more information is known.

"Whether cities can beat the census participation or mail response rate from 2000 is going to be tough," said Thomas Ginsberg, project manager of The Pew Charitable Trusts' Philadelphia Research Initiative and author of the report. "Cities will have to rely on unpaid organizing and grass-roots networks that are already out there."

The stakes are high since the population figures are used to apportion House seats, redraw congressional districts and distribute more than $400 billion in government funds for schools, roads, hospitals and other vital programs.

But there are also broader financial consequences if there is a poor turnout, since the Census Bureau has committed to spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to locate residents with repeated visits if they fail to immediately mail in their paper form.

In 2000, the bureau noted for the first time an overcount of 1.3 million people, due mostly to duplicate counts of more affluent whites with multiple residences. About 4.5 million people were ultimately missed, mostly blacks and Hispanics.
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