Billions of Dollars Hang on Count


Call it a civic duty, commanded by the U.S. Constitution for more than 200 years. Or think of it as a legal requirement that, if shirked, can lead to a federal fine of up to $100. (Not that anyone has been prosecuted in the last quarter century, according to government officials.)

But to Marian Davidson of Riverside, there is a more practical reason for mailing back her census form this month: Money. You don’t fill it out, you don’t get any, the elderly widow discovered.

For 20 years, Davidson had gone to her neighborhood association seeking federal improvement funds to build sidewalks, gutters and curbs for the street in front of the two-story English-style house she has lived in since 1946.

The road often flooded during heavy rains, recalled Davidson, now 86. Residents were faced with lots of mud and lots of dust. On top of that, there was nowhere to walk.

But Spring Garden Street did not qualify for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development money she sought, because the 1980 and 1990 censuses showed too few low- and moderate-income residents living in the “tract” that included Davidson’s Northside neighborhood, said Rosalie Silverglate, who was then assistant director for housing and community development for the city of Riverside.


Facts Couldn’t Make Up for Lack of Data

The fact that there actually were enough such residents in her neighborhood didn’t matter because it is census information that determines how HUD-issued community development block grants are doled out in the city of Riverside and elsewhere, officials said.

Davidson refused to give up.

“She would come every year. You could mark it on your calendar,” recalled Frances McArthur-Wright, Davidson’s friend and chairwoman of the Northside Neighborhood Advisory Committee between 1980 and 1991.

Each time, she’d say the same thing: “I’d like to see some curbs, gutters and sidewalks on Spring Garden.”

“They’d say, ‘We’ll see,’ but I didn’t,” Davidson said, smiling. It wasn’t until a separate, door-to-door survey on income was conducted by Riverside officials, and then used to update the 1990 census, that Davidson won her battle.

Of the city’s 1995-96 community development block grant money, $136,000 went to fixing Spring Garden Street. Today, Davidson said, she takes daily walks on her hard-won sidewalks and enjoys watching children skateboard and parents push strollers in front of her house.

“I knew the census was important, but I didn’t know it would be so important,” Davidson said Tuesday, adding that she had mailed back this year’s form that morning.

More Accurate Count Sought This Year

Neighborhood repairs are only a small part of the roughly $150 billion in federal funding that is parceled out each year, based on how many people took part in the last census.

Given an estimated net undercount of 4 million people in the 1990 census, there has been an unprecedented push at national, state and local levels to ensure a more accurate snapshot of the U.S. population this time around.

“We have to live with this data for 10 years,” said Silverglate, now coordinator for Project Outreach, a grass-roots group working to ensure census participation in Riverside. “The more accurate it is, the more we can do.”

Everything from Medicaid to social services--including foster care, special education and employee-training programs--is affected by how many people are counted. Generally, the money is handed out to states, but some funding, including community development block grants and federal mass transit grants, is allocated locally.

Missed people translating into missed funding was particularly serious in California, where a net undercount of nearly 838,000 people in 1990 cost an estimated $2 billion in the past decade, the most for any state in the nation, federal and state officials said.

The fiscal impact on local governments over the past 10 years cannot be as easily measured, given that most of the money is handed out at the state level, experts in the General Accounting Office said. But the U.S. Conference of Mayors in a 1999 survey of 34 U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Long Beach and Anaheim, provides a glimpse.

In the report, Los Angeles officials estimated a loss of about $120 million and Long Beach more than $10 million. Anaheim Mayor Tom Daly’s office reported missing out on close to $1.6 million, most of it in community development block grants and job-training money, according to the report.

Long Beach officials concluded that the city’s undercount was particularly high among young Asians and Latinos, who presumably have since married and had families of their own.

“Indirect evidence of this may be found in the fact that the Long Beach Unified School District’s [1998-99] student population of 89,408 persons is nearly 3,000 students greater than the 1999-2000 enrollment projection established in 1996,” the report quotes Mayor Beverly O’Neill’s office as saying.

The report also predicts significant increases in missed funding during the next decade if the 1990 rate of missing people is repeated in Census 2000. Anaheim, for example, stands to lose $2.8 million, the report said, while the city of Los Angeles might lose $227 million.

In Riverside, where more than 9,300 people were not counted in the 1990 census, McArthur-Wright shares local leaders’ fears.

“We are really concerned about census counts in our area,” she said of the Northside community, where many residents remain ineligible for community development block grants. “There are poorer sections in this part of town that don’t qualify because they probably don’t turn their information back in.”

Some remedy may come in the form of statistical sampling: Population estimates derived from a post-census survey will be used to try to rectify undercounts in funding formulas. (Use of statistical sampling in reapportioning the House of Representatives, however, was ruled out by the U.S. Supreme Court in January 1999.)

Census officials are also cautiously optimistic that this year’s count will be more accurate than those of past decades.

The reasons are an exhaustive advertisement campaign in 17 languages, state and local “complete count” committees that are reaching out to undercounted groups and “partnerships” with tens of thousands of community organizations nationwide that have spread word of the survey among their memberships and neighborhoods.

Finally, the census short forms, sent to about five in six households, are shorter than they’ve been in 180 years, which officials expect will make them more palatable.

As of Monday, a quarter of the close to 120 million forms mailed to households nationwide had been sent back, according to agency officials.

Automated scanners, which can read all handwriting types and are being used to scan census forms for the first time, are working at more than 99% efficiency, said Steve Jost, the bureau’s associate director for communications.

“Things are running incredibly smoothly,” he said. “Our operational people are sleeping well at night.”

Another 30,000 people had filled out short forms on the Internet as of Monday, said Nancy Gordon, the bureau’s associate director for demographic programs. The Web site for filing by Internet can be found at

To file by computer, respondents must type in a census identification number, which is a 22-digit number just below the bar code on forms mailed to their homes. The Internet version of the form may be filed through April 15, according to the Web site.

Surveys sent by mail should be returned by April 1, although late filings will be accepted for another week or so, officials said.

Afterward, census takers will be hired and dispatched to households that have failed to respond. Those workers, who will knock on doors through the early summer, will attempt to reach each unresponsive household at least three times.

“But that’s not our preferred method of counting people,” said John Reeder, the Census Bureau’s regional director for the area that includes Southern California. “It’s much better if they send in the forms.”


Money on the Line

California would have had the most to gain of any state if the 1990 Census had fully represented its population. Officials estimate that 838,000 people were missed--resulting in a loss of about $2 billion in federal money over the last decade. In 1998 alone, the state lost out on $222. 8 million--equivalent to 1.62% of the amount it received from 15 major federal programs.

The same year, if federal funds had been distributed under an adjusted formula that compensated for undercounting, 23 states would have received less money. Pennsylvania’s allocation would have been reduced the most--1.68%, representing $110.4 million.


Source: U.S. General Accounting Office report, February 1999, based on a post-1990 Census survey

Getting Help

There are assistance guides in 49 languages that, when placed next to the mailed survey form, provide translations for each question. The guides can be obtained from local census offices, as can locations of questionnaire assistance centers, where trained volunteers and paid workers offer free help in filling out forms.

Toll-free telephone assistance is available in several languages:

English: (800) 471-9424

Spanish: (800) 471-8642

Korean: (800) 471-9131

Cantonese and Mandarin:

(800) 471-9401

Vietnamese: (800) 471-7913

Tagalog: (800) 470-9897