Another Census Undercount

by Christina Aanestad, September 8, 2010

The US census recently finished its national popula­tion count leaving rural residents restless over fears of undercounting since the census data is used to determine how much a tax-paying community receives in federal funding. “In 2000 the census listed Anderson Valley having 22% of the population at poverty level, currently the Valley's free and reduced lunch count is at 83% of our population so that’s a pretty big difference,” said Donna Pierson-Pugh, principal of the Anderson Valley Elementary School.

The census count is also used to determine the num­ber of congressional representatives a district receives. Federal funding for education and social services including the national school lunch program, and even unemployment benefits, relies on census data to allocate money, and when the numbers don’t accurately reflect the population, it can really hurt a community finan­cially. “Each person not counted costs the county $1,500 per person per year, for a family of 4 it's $6,000. Over ten years its $60,000 that goes back to communities,” said Norm Dutra with the US Census Bureau's Eureka Office.

That's why Pierson-Pugh got her school involved in giving census forms to parents. Some local residents even signed up as census enumerators to count the local population. “I have enumerated a number of people that were not on the map or on the list,” said Diane Paget, who has lived in Anderson Valley for more than 30 years. According to Paget, she was not counted in 1980 nor in 1990 when she lived on Holmes Ranch Road with her family of 5. In 2000, she called the census to demand they count her, and this year, she signed up to be a cen­sus worker, she says, to get a better count of the commu­nity.

“We recently discovered an area, along [Highway 128] through this valley that has probably 20 homes that somehow was missed in the mapping process,” Paget said. Undercounting is a perennial problem with the US Census. In rural and urban communities there are special challenges when it comes to locating and then counting transient people and undocumented immigrants. And, in rural areas specifically, it can be difficult to even locate where people live. That's why the Census has defined rural areas “hard to count.”

“It's difficult, it is. We try to partner with community organizations to help get us counted and it's a team effort,” said Dutra. Looking forward, the community groups involved with the census like the Anderson Val­ley Schools, have suggestions for next time. According to Principal Pierson-Pugh, the census forms her school received all had to be recounted. “So basically all the work that we did here of getting people surveyed with the extra surveys through the school apparently was for no reason,” she explained. Pierson-Pugh estimates they sent in roughly 100 census forms. According to Dutra the policy requires all census forms sent after April 1, 2010 be verified with a census worker.

To solve the dilemma of low population counts, advo­cates like Paget and Pierson-Pugh say the census should send census forms to PO Boxes in rural commu­nities where most people receive their mail. But Dutra says it's against federal policy to send a census form to a PO Box. They don't want to over count. “They felt going to PO Boxes there would be a lot of duplication, vacation homes, then you may not give an accurate count and allocate funds to the proper place,” said Dutra.

There are two ways the census conducts its popula­tion count, according to Dutra. The easiest, most effi­cient way is to send a census form to a person's home mailing address. As for residents who don't receive their mail at home, like many rural residents, a census worker pays them a home visit. Dutra says rural communities are at a disadvantage – people live behind locked gates and in the back hills, along dirt roads miles from each other. “My office covers 12,500 square miles. There's two offices in San Francisco, the west office covers 49 square miles,” he said.

Dutra says regional offices are based on population size. So his office covers five rural counties in Northern California, Mendocino, Lake, Humboldt, Trinity and Del Norte counties. Sending a form to a PO Box in rural America could be a hefty savings according to Dutra's own estimates. He estimates that it costs $50 for each home visit, versus a 44¢ postage stamp.

Paget says the census policy discriminates against rural communities. “They're not interested in deceiving the government or anyone, they just want to be counted,” she said.

Dutra agrees it's a tough job. He says the census is still a work in progress and they're looking at using the internet to conduct future census counts. “The first cen­sus took them three to five years to complete and they were doing it by walking to each household or by horse. It's more modern now using computerize forms,” he said.

But even forward thinking ideas like internet census taking will prove a challenge to isolated, rural communi­ties, where internet access is limited and in some areas unavailable. As government officials look to the high tech future, they may be looking far beyond a few simple solutions for rural communities.

Dutra says only an act of congress can change the cen­sus policy. People like Paget have already called their congressional representative. The US census will deliver it's decennial population count to the president in December. ¥¥

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