Already, setbacks for the census

Unprecedented money and time are being spent to get an accurate count, but problems are arising.

On both coasts, the story is the same.

Beneath the hot noon sun in South Central Los Angeles, a grass-roots group is walking down wide boulevards to encourage often-undercounted Latinos to fill out census forms.

Across the United States in Atlanta - where breezes carry the sweet aroma of blooming dogwoods - billboards, pamphlets, and church sermons preach the value of being counted.

The job hasn't been easy. Already, just a few weeks after the decennial count began, the census is facing setbacks old and new.

The problems range from unfavorable portrayals of census-takers on TV to allegations that information could end up in the hands of immigration officials and get illegal immigrants expelled. To combat these perceptions - and stake a claim on the money that comes with higher census counts - local officials are launching unprecedented education efforts to make sure they aren't short-changed.

"Every community in America can probably recount to you what the undercount of 1990 meant for them in lost federal resources," says Paul Wyatt, spokesman for the Census Bureau in Washington. "With growing Hispanic and Asian populations in many areas,... many who don't speak English, the stakes are getting higher and the task is getting harder."

Counting non-English speakers has long been a concern for the Census Bureau, but several new issues have arisen this year:

*A soap opera recently introduced a new character - a census-taker who was negatively portrayed.

*There have been claims that salesmen and immigration officials have portrayed themselves as census-takers.

*Residents from Washington to North Carolina have complained to lawmakers about the long form, which is sent to 1 in 6 households and asks questions such as whether respondents have trouble bathing or getting around the house. A congressional candidate in Houston has even filed a lawsuit against the bureau, claiming that the form is a violation of privacy.

*Minnesota has gone so far as to offer inmates money - $1 - to fill out their forms.

Costing $6.5 billion and employing 500,000 workers, the census is the nation's largest undertaking short of full-scale war.

Its main task is to find out how many US House seats each state is entitled to - and where political boundaries are to be drawn. But the findings also determine all federal funding. Lower numbers means less money for local governments.

Overall, the last census count was shy by about 1.6 percent - discovered later by corrective sampling. That's not bad, but it glosses over the fact that the counts for some regions - and ethnic groups - were way off.

Besides $160 million of TV, newspaper, and radio ads, the bureau is coordinating thousands of volunteers from organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League.

"We were probably the most undercounted community in America," says Arturo Ybara, leader of L.A.'s grass-roots effort.

He estimates that Los Angeles was undercounted by 138,000 in 1990. Some 52,000 of those were children, he says, and that cost the city as many as 2,000 teachers and funding for 77 schools.

The big push here is to get minorities to overcome their fears of giving information to the government. "It's our job to convince them that we are who we say we are and that their answers are safe with us," says Anthony Greno, bureau spokesman for the region.

The Peach State also lost big money as a result of the 1990 census. Some studies estimate that Georgia lost $2 billion in federal funding and one congressional seat because only 63 percent of its residents participated - 2 percent below the national average.

Georgia officials don't want to get left behind again, and they are treating the 2000 Census almost as a competition with other states - especially New York.

"When your census form comes, fill it out and mail it in," pleads Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes in one television ad. "Or Georgia money will be educating New York children for another 10 years."

State officials say they spent almost nothing explaining the census' significance in 1990. But this time, things are different.

In one of the most aggressive census efforts in the US, Georgia is spending $2.3 million to educate its residents and has also set up a friendly competition between counties: The winner gets a $10,000 grant for park equipment and other recreational uses.

Several factors make Georgia a tough state to count. First, it is one of the fastest-growing states in the nation. Even efforts made six months ago can miss some 50,000 new faces, says Robert Giacomini, director of research at Georgia Tech's State Data and Research Center in Atlanta.

In addition, a large percentage of those coming - roughly 20 percent - are Hispanics. This minority group has traditionally been one of the hardest to count.

Western states with large Hispanic populations are often among the lowest census counts in the country. Here in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, 70 percent of the population is now Hispanic.

But there are also growing pockets of other minorities in US cities: Laotian Hmong in Detroit, Bosnians and Vietnamese in Louisville, Ky., and Pacific Islanders in Seattle.

Unless sharply declining response rates can be reversed, US Census Director Kenneth Prewitt says this year's census could be "one of the biggest reflectors of social injustice."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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