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Tuesday, March 7, 2000
Houston, Texas
Volume 65, Issue 110

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Census hopes to be accurate

Officials want to avoid funding losses caused by undercounting

By Romina Kim
Daily Cougar Staff

As soon as U.S. census questionnaires begin arriving in mailboxes across the country, people will be faced with a dilemma: Answer them or ignore them?

The question is particularly strong in the minds of some people -- for example, immigrants worried about their legal status who may be unwilling to give up sensitive information to a government agency.

However, the U.S. Census Bureau is taking pains to make sure the population understands that all data collected will be kept confidential. By law, the bureau cannot share individual answers it receives with others, including welfare agencies, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Internal Revenue Service, courts, the military or the police.

"The U.S. Census Bureau doesn't care about your legal status," said census spokeswoman Sylvia Rodriguez. "Count yourself so we can add dollars to city budgets."

Census data affects the annual allocation of more than $185 billion in federal funds to state and local governments, money that is used in the planning and completion of community projects such as schools, hospitals, roads, parks, public transportation, job centers and scientific research.

The city of Houston has estimated that in the last census, Houston was undercounted by 4.3 percent, or roughly 67,000 people, the highest number of any major city. As a consequence, the city says it has lost $30 million in federal funding.

The problem doesn't stop there. According to the U.S. General Accounting Office, the state of Texas lost more than $1 billion in federal funding due 1990 census undercounting.

Concerns over the lost federal dollars have driven a number of groups in Houston to heavily promote the census locally and encourage a more accurate count this year.

"Houston is putting a big effort," said Cardie Chung of the Census Bureau. "It's not just ethnic organizations. It's everybody."

The Urban League is one of the lead organizations helping the Census Bureau improve the distribution of information by donating space and through recruiting members of the community to staff facilities and conduct the census.

Other groups are also helping the effort. The Metropolitan Transit Authority, for example, will install signs in its buses to familiarize patrons with the look of the census questionnaire. And the Houston Independent School District, whose 27,000 employees are in constant contact with children of hard-to-enumerate citizens, is implementing an incentive program for teachers who encourage the census among the students and their families.

The Census Bureau as a whole is launching a national effort to ensure a fair count, using paid television, radio and print advertising for the first time.

A nationwide multicultural and multilingual outreach campaign is also aimed at minority participation -- not just the traditionally hard-to-enumerate populations like African-Americans, Native Americans, Spanish-speaking populations and Asian audiences, but also emerging Arabic, Russian, Polish, Haitian and Jamaican communities.

But minorities are not the only population considered hard to enumerate -- college students fall in the same category.

"International students whose visas have expired, several college students living in one apartment when only two are listed in the lease -- those people are not likely to answer the questionnaire," Rodriguez said.

Students who live away from home while attending college are counted as residing where they attend school. Census takers will distribute questionnaires to students who live in residence halls; those living off-campus will receive the questionnaires in the mail.

Despite all the efforts being made to improve Houston's count, there is still work to be done in the community, said Dionne Roberts, Houston partnership specialist with the census.

"We are not addressing everybody, like the African immigrants," Roberts said. "We have to break through a cultural barrier."
 

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