Local Governments Face Census Challenge

If you receive a water bill in Phoenix, you'll get a note about the census. If you spend time in a classroom, you're likely to...
by | March 1, 2010 AT 10:00 AM

If you receive a water bill in Phoenix, you'll get a note about the census. If you spend time in a classroom, you're likely to hear a lesson about the census. If you're called for jury duty, you'll see a video about the census. And if you see a garbage truck, you'll see a message about the census.

Phoenix isn't alone. Even though the nation's constitutionally mandated decennial population count is a federal responsibility, municipalities across the country are distributing census literature, organizing speeches on the census and, yes, adorning their garbage trucks with messages about the census.

These efforts reflect a major shift. Just two decades ago, state and local governments' role in the census was small. Today not only are they critical public relations partners, but they are also heavily engaged in updating the massive address file on which the U.S. Census Bureau depends.

Localities have embraced this expanded role for one simple reason: money.

Population, of course, plays a key role in federal funding formulas. The federal government doles out more than $400 billion per year based on population. That means every additional person that the census counts in a particular jurisdiction results in hundreds of dollars in additional funding.

Take Cincinnati, for example. Mayor Mark Mallory estimates that an undercount from 2000 has cost his city more than $100 million over the last decade. Now he's obsessed with proving that his city has the 378,259 people that a nonprofit group reported, not the 333,336 people in the bureau's current estimate. "There's no such thing," Mallory says, "as too much talk about the census."

This year, getting an accurate count won't come easily for Cincinnati, Phoenix or anywhere else. Tension over immigration raids, rising mistrust of government and the epidemic of foreclosures have combined to make Americans more difficult to be found and less willing to be counted. The Census Bureau believes municipal governments, with their local knowledge, can help overcome these challenges. With tens of millions of census forms headed to the public later this month, we're about to find out whether they're right.

Given how much states and localities have riding on the census, it's surprising how recently they had little to do with it. Besides the billions of dollars at stake, states are fighting for Electoral College votes and congressional seats. State legislative district lines are drawn based on the numbers. The economic prospects of a city, as well as its own sense of self-regard, hinge on whether it's growing or shrinking. "When CVS is trying to figure out where to build their next store," Mallory says, "they're looking at census data."

For a long time, though, local governments didn't need to have much of a role. The census was a relatively simple process. A census employee visited every American household. Most were amenable to providing information.

With population growth and longer census questionnaires, that process gradually became less accurate and more expensive. The bureau began mailing out questionnaires in 1960. It began allowing them to be mailed back in 1970. Today only people who fail to return their forms receive a personal visit from an "enumerator" - a census employee responsible for population counting.

But lots of people are getting those personal visits. Mail response rates were only 65 percent in 1990. Increasing that rate is one of the bureau's key goals. With that in mind, two key changes occurred between 1990 and 2000.

One was that the bureau became more aggressive with its outreach efforts, which included involving state and local governments in supplementing the bureau's own work. The bureau pushed to expand local Complete Count Committees. Thousands of localities formed their own committees, building a national network of census public relations shops.

The other change was that, with the passage of a new federal law in 1994, the census began allowing states and localities to access its closely guarded Master Address File - the database that aspires to list the address of every American. "It is a living, breathing gargantuan database that you can't even get near without giving blood samples," says Thomas Ginsberg, a researcher with the Pew Charitable Trusts who has studied the census. "This is the heart and soul of the census."

Involving state and localities seems to have worked. In 2000, the mail response rate ticked up slightly. The increase was a surprise, given that most anything that shows up in the mail is treated as junk these days.

Whether it will work again, however, is an open question. There's plenty of cause for pessimism. Foreclosures have thrown people out of their homes and into a variety of temporary living arrangements. That will make them harder to count. The federal government's vigorous immigration enforcement has illegal immigrants wary of providing information to authorities. Unlike in 2000, the feds aren't pausing immigration raids while the census is conducted. More broadly, mistrust of government appears to be rising. Some conservative politicians have raised objections to the census, saying the questions the bureau asks go beyond its constitutional mandate.

As they try to overcome those obstacles, local governments will have little to spend on outreach. In a report issued last fall, Ginsberg examined 11 major cities and found that they had less money and fewer staff dedicated to the census as compared to 2000. The cutbacks suggest a troubling possibility: Cities may be saving hundreds of thousands of dollars by reducing census outreach now, only to cost themselves millions of dollars over the next decade due to incomplete counts.

Phoenix has lots of immigrants. It has lots of foreclosures too. Faced with steep budget cuts, the city has only been able to dedicate about $40,000 in general fund money to promoting the census. "We don't have any money," says Tammy Perkins, who oversees Phoenix's census outreach from the City Manager's Office. Yet if there's a strategy to promote the census, it's probably being tried in Phoenix.

One reason for that: Phoenix decided that every manager in city government would be evaluated on how they promoted the census. To do that without spending money, the departments incorporated the census into their existing work. Jurors already must watch an orientation video. The municipal court added a video produced by the U.S. Census Bureau. Public Works added signs in English and Spanish to its garbage trucks. Human Services included census information in its dial-a-ride vans.

Even with this sort of creativity, $40,000 would only go so far. So Phoenix has looked for help wherever it can find it. The city worked with the Maricopa Association of Governments, which also has been active in prepping for the census, to repurpose $200,000 in federal money to help pay for a $400,000 countywide ad campaign through TV, radio and print.

Phoenix also recruited 160 community leaders to serve on its Complete Count Committee, which was divided into five subcommittees: faith, business, minority outreach, media, and community and schools.

Though they received guidance and encouragement from the city, these groups were given free rein to devise their strategies, usually using their own money or no money at all. The faith committee organized a Census Awareness Worship Week for religious leaders to preach on the count's importance. The community and schools committee arranged lesson plans to spread the word from children to their parents. "In families where the adults may have a language barrier or a cultural barrier, the kids are the bridge," Perkins says. "They're the family's translator. They're the family's business manager."

Phoenix's efforts illustrate why the Census Bureau turned to cities in the first place. The federal government isn't the most trusted source of information right now. Local governments are somewhat more popular and, even more importantly, they tend to know how to mobilize people who are trusted locally - whether they're community activists, religious leaders or celebrities. The bureau is engaged in its own massive public relations campaign, but the success or failure of the census likely will hinge on whether localities succeeded in spreading the word.

That said, all of this outreach can only do so much. If the Census Bureau doesn't have a person's address in its records, he or she won't get a form and likely won't be counted.

Keeping this address list current is a massive multiyear process that has just come to a close. The bureau melds postal records with older versions of its address file to get updates. It also sends 140,000 canvassers into the field to check addresses.

But local governments can provide information that the bureau doesn't have. After all, they're the ones that know who's paying water bills and property taxes. As a result, they usually know where people live.

Or at least they should. The truth is that some governments aggressively update the bureau's list and some don't. Some localities comb through detailed records or use GIS to verify the lists. Others do as little as having the state check the addresses of colleges, prisons and nursing homes.

There's a good case that, especially in places with large hard-to-count populations, if localities invested a little more money in maintaining their address lists, those efforts would pay for themselves through a more complete census count. Getting the address list right isn't just a matter of money, though. It's also about early preparation.

Not surprisingly, no place is better at that than New York City, which has eight employees in its Population Division, headed by veteran demographer Joseph Salvo. These employees are constantly tracking how many residents New York City has and where they're living. By monitoring the number of housing units in the city and their vacancy rates, they routinely challenge the Census Bureau's mid-decade population estimates.

All this work throughout the decade proves invaluable when, on rushed deadlines, New York City officials - like their counterparts around the country - must double check the bureau's address list. With the help of records from the city's Finance Department, they know when a new apartment building goes up, when a basement is converted to a new residence or when a vacant building is reoccupied.

In the address check leading up to this year's count, Salvo and his colleagues found 127,000 households that the bureau had missed. Those households likely have around 300,000 people, which would translate into tens of millions of dollars in additional funding over the course of the decade. With those additions, Salvo says the bureau's file for the city has enough addresses to support his current population estimate of around 8.4 million people.

But he's still nervous about what will happen when census questionnaires start arriving in mailboxes later this month. "I can give you an estimate of the population of the city," Salvo says. "None of that matters unless people answer these questions. In the end, it comes down to whether people mail the forms back."

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman | Former Staff Writer | mailbox@governing.com