Census takers trying again in city

50,000 households in Baltimore remain uncounted

June 01, 2000|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Baltimore and federal officials announced plans yesterday to redouble efforts to contact an estimated 50,000 city households that remain uncounted in the 2000 census.

Officials hope to avoid a repeat of the city's ranking in the 1990 census, when Baltimore placed 91st among 100 cities in accurately counting its population.

Yesterday, Mayor Martin O'Malley said the city's efforts had reached "a critical juncture" as census workers turn their attention to the toughest cases, homes where people did not return census forms, ignored phone calls or slammed doors in the faces of questioners.

"This is crunch time," O'Malley said, during a City Hall news conference. "You absolutely, positively have to be counted."

As of April 25t 50 percent of the city's households had responded. That figure gave Baltimore the lowest response rate of the nation's 26 largest cities. Since then, more than 1,000 enumerators have made repeated visits and phone calls to people who have not responded.

As of yesterday, census workers had counted the people in 83 percent of the city's households. Census officials said they will keep up their work until every household has been counted.

"All I can tell you is we have a lot of work to do," said Cheryl Benton, who is heading the city's efforts. "We don't want to leave anyone uncounted, or leave any money at the federal table."

A plan announced yesterday for the final five weeks of the census count includes running notices during the city's cable programming and sending out public service announcements. City officials also hope ministers will note their message from the pulpit.

The numbers are crucial in Baltimore, which has steadily lost political ground to Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said the city could lose two state legislative districts, reducing its influence in Annapolis.

Cummings also noted that the city could lose $3,382 a year in federal money for each person who is not counted. O'Malley made the same point as he pleaded with city residents to cooperate with census takers. Baltimore, which is believed to have about 650,000 residents, lost an estimated $40 million because of low counts in the 1990 census.

"Every person that doesn't get counted in our city is a lot of federal dollars that don't come here," O'Malley said. "For you to pay taxes and not be counted is like paying for a meal and not waiting around to be served."

Federal dollars aren't the only thing at stake. Census numbers also affect the quality of civic life, said Fernando E. Armstrong, regional director for the Bureau of the Census.

People "need to think about the schools for their children, the education, the roads they drive on," he said. "They need to think about the grocery stores that might not be built."

Part of the problem is that people are suspicious of the census takers and wonder what the government will do with the information, say officials. One area due for a concerted effort is the city's west side, where 98,000 households failed to mail in their forms by April 1.

"Imagine the good things we could do in Park Heights if everybody would get counted," said O'Malley.

The city's success in its final push to count every household depends on people such as Noemi Thomas, a 30-year-old mother of four. She signed on to be an enumerator after getting a flier at her home in Armistead Gardens.

Since then, she has walked through her neighborhood and surrounding areas, her papers in hand. "Some of the ladies have said, come back and we'll exchange recipes or maybe go dancing," she said.

The census count is scheduled to end July 7, but Kenneth Prewitt, director of the U.S. Census Bureau, said yesterday that the workers would stay on the job in Baltimore until "we've knocked on every door."

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