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Bureau Counts on Sacramento

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Monica Jones counts people for the U.S. Census Bureau, and if you think that’s an easy job, take a quick walk in her Nikes.

Armed with only a clipboard, good manners and a government badge, Jones goes door to door in some of Sacramento’s sketchiest neighborhoods, asking--no, begging--people to pulleeze take five minutes out of their busy day to answer a couple of questions.

Some groan and comply. Some run and hide when they hear her knock. And more than a few curse the prying ways of the dadgum government and slam the door in her face.

“I like talking to people,” the effervescent 27-year-old said between houses one recent breezy morning, “but not everyone wants to talk to me.”

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Jones is a front-line scout in the Census Bureau’s quest to count every man, woman and child in America, a staggering task the federal government has undertaken once each decade since 1791.

The nationwide census will not take place for another two years. But to polish their skills and gear up for 2000, federal officials are running a dress rehearsal in Sacramento and two other places this year.

Sacramento is the lone laboratory for a controversial new counting method called sampling. Although intended to improve accuracy--and, officials hope, avoid the undercount that plagued the 1990 census--sampling has bitterly split Congress and landed the Census Bureau in court.

Sampling involves directly counting 90% of the people in a given census tract, and then using that data to statistically estimate the number and characteristics of the remaining 10%.

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Foes of the technique--primarily Republicans--insist that every person in America ought to be physically counted, one by one. Supporters of sampling counter that society has changed to the point where that simply may not be possible any more.

The experience of Jones and 800 other Sacramento door-knockers underscores sampling’s appeal. Their mission is to find and cajole answers out of people who fail to mail back their census forms despite an aggressive advertising campaign touting the benefits of an accurate count.

In Sacramento, nearly half of the city’s 173,000 households failed to send back the form. Tracking down the foot-draggers, recalcitrants and other “non-respondents"--and wheedling information out of them--is a monumental and expensive job.

Consider the Herculean effort Jones made at the white house with the peeling paint and half-dead lawn on Sacramento’s northern fringe.

Her goal was to ask the occupant a dozen simple questions, about his age, race, date of birth and the status of other people living in the home. She would assure him that the information is strictly confidential, that it would be fed into a computer and that she could be jailed if she shared it with a soul.

To encourage cooperation, Jones might have told him that the benefits of an accurate count are many. Census numbers determine funding for scores of federal programs, from free school lunches to freeway construction. One study concluded that the 1990 undercount cost California $1.3 billion during the decade.

Those are weighty arguments, but Jones didn’t get to make them, largely because of the padlocked gate and two snarling Rottweilers in the home’s frontyard. As the canines yelped and hurled their bulky bodies against the fence, Jones did her best to summon the dweller she suspected was lurking within.

“Hello? Hello?” she yelled. “We’re with the Census Bureau! Can we talk to you for just a minute?”

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After a long pause, Jones shrugged and marked the address down as a non-responder. But then, as she neared the next house, the front door cracked open and a head poked out.

Newly hopeful, Jones hustled back and shouted her pitch as the dogs snarled anew. But it was no use.

“No time,” said the man, shirtless and groggy, “gotta go to work.” Slam.

Dejected, Jones turned to a supervisor for advice. “Try again tonight,” the boss suggested. “Maybe he’ll be in a better mood.”

Around the corner, Jones met a different kind of obstacle at a stucco house surrounded by a 6-foot-tall wrought-iron fence. When a smiling toddler in the driveway agreeably summoned his smiling mother, Jones figured her luck was about to change.

But the woman was a Romanian immigrant who spoke nary a word of English. Jones’ census partner, Irma Camarena, was along to query Spanish speakers, but alas, Romanian was not in her linguistic repertoire.

“Oh, well,” Jones said, logging another missed opportunity on her clipboard. After nearly an hour, the duo had visited six homes and had hit the jackpot only once.

Their experience was not atypical. As they sweep through neighborhoods, the so-called enumerators--temporary workers paid $12.50 an hour plus mileage and bonuses--rarely encounter folks who invite them in for tea.

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After all, they are chasing people who did not mail back their census forms. Surveys show that many are either resentful of government or too busy to care. Others insist they didn’t get a form. Maybe they didn’t, or maybe they mistook it for junk mail and threw it away.

Encountering Resistance

In California, many non-respondents tend to be recent immigrants who are wary of anything governmental. And in Sacramento’s Oak Park, a low-income neighborhood with a large African American population, another theme emerged.

Sandra Smith, a mother of four, spoke for many of her neighbors when she said she didn’t mail back her form because she figured it wouldn’t do her or her family any good.

“I heard about it on TV, and I know they say it will help the community,” Smith said as two of her children hung from her skirt. “But I don’t see any benefits. Look at this neighborhood. We haven’t had a grocery store around here in 50 years.”

Ed Salazar, the Census Bureau’s chief of promotion for the Sacramento dress rehearsal, says the what’s-in-it-for-me dilemma is a tough one.

“This came up in our focus groups,” Salazar said. “The problem with the census is that it’s hard for people to see the tangible benefits. We know they’re there, but we have to do a better job of convincing the public.”

So it seems, if a glance at history is any guide. In the 1980 census, 75% of the people in America mailed back their forms. In 1990, that percentage dropped to 65%.

Studies have found no single conclusive reason for the dive, but theories include the public’s increased alienation from government, more working women and the increase in immigrant populations.

In response to the trend, the bureau has simplified census forms--they’re slimmer than they have been since 1830--and plans to mount an unprecedented $100-million national ad campaign to hammer home the importance of the count.

Although preferring the carrot approach, the bureau is also using the stick. The census form comes in an envelope warning that responding is required by federal law. (A fine of up to $100 could be assessed for nonparticipation, but budget limits mean that the rule has rarely been enforced, census officials say.)

As for the enumerators, they undergo extensive training that emphasizes skills such as how to be polite but tenacious. If you fail to get an answer on your first visit, the teachers say, try later in the day. If that fails, ask a supervisor to give it a go. As a last resort, ask a neighbor to fill in the blanks.

Allison Hines, an enumerator who works the Oak Park area, says such training helps but cannot solve all the problems she finds on the streets.

“Dogs, tall fences--there’s not much you can do about that,” said Hines, who has a master’s degree in labor relations and took the census job as a temporary gig while she hunts for work in her field.

The worst, she said, are “people with attitudes,” those who resent the government snooping around.

“No matter what I do, some people just don’t want to deal with it,” Hines said. “When you come up against that, there’s not much you can do.”


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