Most employers who want to hire short-term help have to take out a newspaper ad, ask for applications, and hope people show up. But when you’re charged with counting every American man, woman, and child, you’ve got a few more optionslike, if you want, sending a want-ad come-on to every American man, woman, and child. A white postcard mass-mailed to several swaths of D.C. announced last week that the Bureau of the Census is hiring locals to canvass neighborhoods and verify address lists in preparation for Census 2000.
“We’re hiring over 800 people to work in the field in the District, and the city of Washington is one of our major target areas,” says Lyn Kirshenbaum, a coordinator in the bureau’s regional office in Philadelphia. “We really want to increase the response rate.”
It’s not a bad gig: $13 an hour to help the feds in their decennial attempt to count every person in the city. Traditionally, that hasn’t been an easy task. Like other cities across the country, D.C. habitually deals with the implications of the “undercount,” or the number of people whose lives don’t make it onto the census rolls. Poor people and minorities, transients, residents with criminal records, and rentersthe groups typically underrepresented on census rollsare all overrepresented in the District’s population.
“We always miss people,” says William Micarelli, the Census Bureau’s chief historian. “Some people do not want to be counted. Illegal aliens are afraid we’ll turn over their information to the INS. Some people aren’t making payments on child care. No matter what we do, we always miss people.”
It’s particularly hard to muster excitement in the District, which in addition to its full slate of census-unfriendly demographics also has an anomalous political setup. In most places, the census hoopla focuses on congressional redistricting. But even if D.C.’s population were to triple, the city would still only have its one congressional delegate, and she still wouldn’t be able to vote on the House floor. In 1990, only 63 percent of city residents bothered to fill out the census questionnaire, compared with 73 percent nationwide.
City officials, however, say that home rule politics aside, there are still plenty of reasons to help out that canvasser at your door. The demographic data are eventually crunched a billion ways, to determine not just congressional seats but also local political boundaries and funding for a slew of federal programs.
“In 1990, the District was undercounted by 32,000 people by the Census Bureau’s own estimate,” says Herb Bixhorn, chief of the District’s State Data Center. “The undercount is higher among poor people and minorities. So Washington, like many other cities, is often undercounted. We don’t have congressional districts, but we lose a heck of a lot of money.”
Bixhorn estimates that $400 in federal funding is lost for every District resident missed by the census. With an undercount of 32,000, that figure translates to more than $12 million in lost federal funds per year. Because the city’s population continues to declinethe last figures put it at a paltry 523,124 and dwindlingevery head counts, dollarwise.
“People don’t realize what the direct benefit is,” says Micarelli. “They don’t see why they should bother filling out the form. But businesses use census data to plan where they might put a new store.”
Last week’s news that the Supreme Court had ruled against samplingthe Clinton administration’s plan to supplement traditional counting methods with statistical estimateswas played as a blow to big cities, D.C. included. The technique had been pushed by demographers as a way to get a more accurate sense of the nation’s population at a time when increasing numbers of people move frequently, are part of nontraditional families, or don’t speak English.
Because the folks left out of traditional counting methods are the minorities and poor people who tend to vote Democratic at the ballot box, the issue had become a partisan one. Congressional Republicans strenuously opposed sampling.
According to Bixhorn, however, the District’s lack of a vote in Congress means that the court’s ruling won’t hurt Washington. Though the 5-4 opinion barred the use of sampling in the distribution of Congressional seats, its language left the door open to using the statistical method for other purposes.
“The sampling issue is very important for the District,” says Bixhorn. “The ruling is actually favorable. It says that you can’t use sampling for apportionment purposes, but you can use it for federal funding. We want to get as high a count as possible.”
And, as far as politics go, Bixhorn stresses that Census 2000 will most certainly play a role in redefining the city’s ward boundaries. “After we get the numbers, we have to redistrict the wards,” says Bixhorn. “Each of the city’s eight wards is supposed to be equal in population. Over the past decade, Wards 7 and 8 have lost a lot more people than the other wards.”
In 1990, the Census Bureau relied on pro bono public service advertising to drum up enthusiasm for the census. It was a strange spectacle: On Metro buses, ads exhorted Washingtonians to fill out the forms so that they could be properly represented. The campaign largely flopped. This time around, however, the bureau has sunk $100 million into Young & Rubicam Inc., the powerhouse Madison Avenue ad firm, which in turn has contracted with smaller minority firms to target Hispanic, Asian, African-American, and Native American audiences. Ads will be tailored to particular localities.
“We will have ads specifically for the District,” says Linda Softli, a Census 2000 community partnership specialist. “We really want to reach Hispanics, African-Americans, and other recent immigrants to the city.”
The ads haven’t gone up at the corner store yet, but census officials say they’ll do a lot to boost participation. The bureau is expected to launch a public awareness campaign in the nation’s school systems as well, so kids will remind their parents that it’s census time.
Census officials are also in the process of forming a Complete Count Committee, an ad hoc group that will line up enthusiasm for the census in nooks and crannies all over town. Committee members will be responsible for promoting the census within each ward, and will include a cross-section of the District’s advocacy, business, political, and religious leaders.
Eric Rodriguez, a senior policy analyst at the National Council of La Raza, is on board with efforts to prevent an undercount of Hispanics both locally and nationwide.
“Since we don’t have any voting power in Congress, everyone thinks the census doesn’t matter,” says Rodriguez. “Under that perception, it’s going to be very difficult to get people to participate. But representation is only one piece of what the census does. We’ve got to get people to want to be counted in America.” CP