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Tucson Weekly Countdown To Chaos?

Will Old-Fashioned Shoe Leather Plus Fancy Mathematics Ensure An Accurate Census Count For Tucson?

By Dave Devine

MAY 10, 1999:  THE U.S. Constitution mandates that every 10 years a census be conducted which counts "the whole number of persons in each State." But in a country approaching 300 million people, or even in a city the size of Tucson, is that realistic?

For decades some cities have complained the census undercounts their populations. These complaints are especially important because decisions on the distribution of huge sums of federal tax dollars, along with Congressional apportionment, are made based on local population figures.

These complaining communities usually have large minority populations, which traditionally have been less likely to participate. They also rank high in the number of homeless people, who are difficult to count, and host high numbers of people in the country illegally who are often afraid to be counted.

Tucson, of course, could be the poster child for these communities. It has all of these populations in large numbers and thus has a big stake in how Census 2000 will be conducted.

The U.S. Census Bureau believes it can reliably count up to 90 percent of the population. It expects two-thirds of the households which receive mailed census forms next March to return them, and Census 2000 workers will then try to contact those who haven't responded.

But getting that last 10 percent of the population to reply is where problems arise. To address the issue of undercounting, the Census Bureau some time ago proposed using a nationwide sampling technique of 750,000 households to verify its figures. But the U.S. Supreme Court struck down that idea.

For federal funding distribution purposes, the agency now wants to re-interview 300,000 households after the original census. Local communities would then be given the choice of selecting the first "head count" number or the second, revised figure as its population.

But that approach still leaves unanswered the question of how to accurately count everyone. Adolfo Echeveste, manager of the Census Bureau's South Phoenix office, which includes the Tucson area, says they're using a number of initiatives to address the undercounting problem.

These efforts include encouraging historically undercounted groups, like Native Americans, to be involved in the census planning processs. Echeveste also says school programs will promote the importance of the population count.

Meanwhile in Washington, D.C., the method of counting people next year has become a political football. Republicans are supporting the concept of a 100 percent head count, while Democrats favor using sampling to ensure more accurate figures. Republicans are charged with trying to exclude those mostly poor and minority populations which are traditionally left out, while Democrats are accused of trying to establish a counting system which could be politically manipulated.

Tucson Republican Congressman Jim Kolbe wants to see the exclusive head count approach retained because he doesn't believe in the impartiality of sampling. He thinks there could be possibilities for abuse. But he doesn't have a solution for the undercounting problems which have plagued Tucson in the past.

Republican Senator John McCain is also concerned about the potential for a Tucson undercount again. But like Kolbe, he doesn't offer solutions.

While the political bickering continued, 184 hastily trained temporary Census Bureau employees recently were sent out across Pima County. Their job was to verify addresses supplied by the Post Office as one early step in preparing for Census 2000.

These people learned a lesson about the Census Bureau during their three-day training period: it's very sensitive about its public image. One class heard a plea to forward any press contacts to the appropriate public relations people. This request was made while a self-identified writer for The Weekly sat in the room.

That writer was later asked to show his story to Census Bureau officials before it was printed so they could verify that confidentiality rules had not been violated. The writer pointed out that would be censorship, something else addressed in the Constitution.

The goal of the address verification process was to ensure the accuracy of the mailing list on which much of next year's head count depends. Echeveste of the Census Bureau believes the revised mailing list may be up to 99 percent accurate.

But those who scoured Tucson's neighborhoods in March encountered several problems in addition to security doors without doorbells coming as standard operating equipment on many homes. Some found the central city area dotted with housing units which have no addresses because the structures were built without building permits, or because different households share a mailbox. They also found that despite their best efforts, it was impossible to identify all of these units. Which means some people in Tucson might not even get a census form next year.

These short-term employees were also hamstrung by constantly changing directions about how to do their jobs. They had to deal with personal squabbles between their immediate supervisors and Census Bureau higher-ups. In addition, the initial address information they were given was often confusing and far from accurate.

Despite these problems, the process toward mailing out census forms next March continues on. It's safe to assume that Tucson officials will complain about having an undercounted population when figures are released in a few years.

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