Call it a civic duty, commanded by the U.S. Constitution for more than 200 years. Or think of it as a legal requirement that, if shirked, can lead to a federal fine of up to $100. (Not that anyone has been prosecuted in the last quarter century, according to government officials.)
But to Marian Davidson of Riverside, there is a more practical reason for mailing back her census form this month: Money. You don't fill it out, you don't get any, the elderly widow discovered.
For 20 years, Davidson had gone to her neighborhood association seeking federal improvement funds to build sidewalks, gutters and curbs for the street in front of the two-story English-style house she has lived in since 1946.
The road often flooded during heavy rains, recalled Davidson, now 86. Residents were faced with lots of mud and lots of dust. On top of that, there was nowhere to walk.
But Spring Garden Street did not qualify for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development money she sought, because the 1980 and 1990 censuses showed too few low- and moderate-income residents living in the "tract" that included Davidson's Northside neighborhood, said Rosalie Silverglate, who was then assistant director for housing and community development for the city of Riverside.
Facts Couldn't Make Up for Lack of Data
The fact that there actually were enough such residents in her neighborhood didn't matter because it is census information that determines how HUD-issued community development block grants are doled out in the city of Riverside and elsewhere, officials said.
Davidson refused to give up.
"She would come every year. You could mark it on your calendar," recalled Frances McArthur-Wright, Davidson's friend and chairwoman of the Northside Neighborhood Advisory Committee between 1980 and 1991.
Each time, she'd say the same thing: "I'd like to see some curbs, gutters and sidewalks on Spring Garden."
"They'd say, 'We'll see,' but I didn't," Davidson said, smiling. It wasn't until a separate, door-to-door survey on income was conducted by Riverside officials, and then used to update the 1990 census, that Davidson won her battle.
Of the city's 1995-96 community development block grant money, $136,000 went to fixing Spring Garden Street. Today, Davidson said, she takes daily walks on her hard-won sidewalks and enjoys watching children skateboard and parents push strollers in front of her house.
"I knew the census was important, but I didn't know it would be so important," Davidson said Tuesday, adding that she had mailed back this year's form that morning.
More Accurate Count Sought This Year
Neighborhood repairs are only a small part of the roughly $150 billion in federal funding that is parceled out each year, based on how many people took part in the last census.
Given an estimated net undercount of 4 million people in the 1990 census, there has been an unprecedented push at national, state and local levels to ensure a more accurate snapshot of the U.S. population this time around.
"We have to live with this data for 10 years," said Silverglate, now coordinator for Project Outreach, a grass-roots group working to ensure census participation in Riverside. "The more accurate it is, the more we can do."
Everything from Medicaid to social services--including foster care, special education and employee-training programs--is affected by how many people are counted. Generally, the money is handed out to states, but some funding, including community development block grants and federal mass transit grants, is allocated locally.
Missed people translating into missed funding was particularly serious in California, where a net undercount of nearly 838,000 people in 1990 cost an estimated $2 billion in the past decade, the most for any state in the nation, federal and state officials said.
The fiscal impact on local governments over the past 10 years cannot be as easily measured, given that most of the money is handed out at the state level, experts in the General Accounting Office said. But the U.S. Conference of Mayors in a 1999 survey of 34 U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Long Beach and Anaheim, provides a glimpse.
In the report, Los Angeles officials estimated a loss of about $120 million and Long Beach more than $10 million. Anaheim Mayor Tom Daly's office reported missing out on close to $1.6 million, most of it in community development block grants and job-training money, according to the report.
Long Beach officials concluded that the city's undercount was particularly high among young Asians and Latinos, who presumably have since married and had families of their own.
"Indirect evidence of this may be found in the fact that the Long Beach Unified School District's [1998-99] student population of 89,408 persons is nearly 3,000 students greater than the 1999-2000 enrollment projection established in 1996," the report quotes Mayor Beverly O'Neill's office as saying.