Last-chance push to make census count

Given an extension, state hits pavement, sets up free hot line

`Initial response' was slow

Officials frustrated, battling suspicion and indifference

July 16, 2000|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

With more than $1 billion in federal funds potentially at stake, census workers are making an 11th-hour push to count Maryland's uncounted, a large portion of whom live in Baltimore.

After a deluge of Census 2000 mailings and hundreds of thousands of knocks on doors, state and city officials are hoping the telephone can capture the strays. The U.S. Census Bureau has given the state a two-week extension, until Friday, to run toll-free hot lines allowing people to make themselves known.

Besides manning the hot lines, the bureau has sent 1,080 enumerators to Baltimore's streets to check and recheck new buildings and those listed as vacant and abandoned. Two television ads urging people to call the hot line are running twice an hour on a city cable channel, and outreach workers have handed out more than a million fliers in the past six weeks.

The Census Bureau is still counting and has no estimates on how many people are missing from the tally. But census officials have analyzed "initial response rates" - the percentage of people who promptly filled out and sent back the form they received in the mail - and those numbers do not look promising.

Baltimore's rate this year was 48 percent, compared with 63 percent in the last census a decade ago. The overall state rate also is sluggish - 58 percent this year compared with 70 percent in 1990.

"They did come in kind of slow," Andrea King, spokeswoman for the Census Bureau's regional office, said of the Maryland numbers.

Since the initial count, however, enumerators have made follow-up visits and phone calls to those who did not respond.

State and city census officials say the campaign has been successful, but they could not offer specific numbers.

Federal money for everything from Head Start to services for the elderly is based on census numbers, which is why Mayor Martin O'Malley has gone from encouraging citizen cooperation to pleading for it.

The mayor has reason to worry: In 1990, an estimated 100,000 Maryland residents went uncounted, adding up to a loss of about $1.3 billion in federal funds; of that, Baltimore lost out on $650 million.

Municipal frustration

What frustrates city officials and enumerators most is that those who are most difficult to count, such as the homeless and single mothers struggling to make a living, are the same people who stand to benefit from federal aid driven by an accurate tally.

They are people like Rob Davis, a 60-year-old homeless man now spending nights on downtown streets. As far as he knows, he has not been counted - and he doesn't want to be.

"It's a rip-off," he said yesterday. "They don't help poor people. All the government does is steal."

Stressing confidentiality

Kim Washington, project director for the mayor's census campaign, said such suspicion is widespread but misplaced.

"We're stressing that it's confidential, that it won't affect your benefits or your situation with [the Immigration and Naturalization Service]," Washington said. "People worry the information is shared with the FBI or some other government agency. It really isn't."

Census officials said enumerators going door to door in Baltimore - and elsewhere - have been threatened, kicked off properties and even beaten.

The wall of indifference

Perhaps an even larger obstacle for counters is indifference.

Learie Walcott, an interstate trucker who rarely comes home to his Baltimore apartment, did not fill in his census form because he said he was busy and didn't think it was important. "What I worry about is getting from point A to point B," he said.

Other elusive groups are renters who move often, college students and new residents.

Each one adds up

Census workers know they cannot count everyone, but they are mindful that every additional person represents not only increased accuracy but increased dollars.

"We feel optimistic, but we don't want to be overconfident," said Washington. "People still have a week left. A lot can happen in a week."

The statewide census hot line number is 888-447-4221. Baltimore residents can call 410-361-9100.

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