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California and the West | THE WASHINGTON CONNECTION
/ ROBERT ROSENBLATT

State Census Strategy Was on the Money

May 23, 2000|ROBERT ROSENBLATT

Invest $25 million this year and get $5 billion in return over the next 10 years.

Sounds like a pitch for a hot Internet stock. Or the profit potential of a patent on some new wonder drug.

Instead, it is a measure of the extra riches California could reap in federal aid from a successful census, one that comes close to counting every state resident.

The 1990 census missed 800,000 Californians, according to Census Bureau estimates--enough to cost the state one additional seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and an estimated $2 billion in federal funds for everything from schools to hospitals over the past decade.

Gov. Gray Davis and the Legislature, determined to avoid another undercount, agreed to do something the state never tried before: Use Californians' tax money to increase their chances of being tallied by the federal census. Stakes are huge: If the undercount is as large this time as it was in 1990, the state will forfeit $5 billion in its share of federal dollars for the next 10 years.

Reinforcing the Census Bureau's $170-million, nationwide publicity effort, the state approved a $25-million campaign in California to encourage people to be counted. The state money was spent helping community groups run 1,000 outreach centers where people could get help with their forms, preparing television and radio commercials in half a dozen languages, and sending speakers to piggyback on community events and sell the census. A mariachi festival in Fresno, an Asian community gathering in Sacramento, hip-hop jams in Los Angeles, all had plugs for the census as part of the day's entertainment. The results so far are encouraging: While the national tally showed 65% of people mailed back their census forms, the same figure as in 1990, California's tally jumped from 65% to 68%. Only one other state-- Massachusetts--showed a greater improvement.

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Experts are convinced the California outreach effort made the difference. Nationally, only 17% of counties and cities met targets set by the Census Bureau based on 1990 mail response rates for each community. But in California, the results were twice as good, with 35% meeting or beating the targets.

While the Census Bureau encouraged participation nationwide, the state's campaign "was better targeted to California's diverse communities, including those in the past where the participation effort was not as successful," said Tim Ransdell, executive director of the California Institute, a think tank and advisory group for the state's congressional delegation. The program "contributed significantly to California outperforming other states,' he said.

Traditionally, the biggest undercounts came in minority neighborhoods and communities with lots of immigrants.

How do you persuade people from countries with corrupt and threatening bureaucracies that the census is indeed private, that nobody from the Immigration and Naturalization Service will get a whiff of their personal information? Or win the confidence of folks in poor neighborhoods, where federal services such as school lunch programs, Head Start and medical clinics are vital, but the residents are deeply suspicious of anybody who says, "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help."

You do the selling job with high school rallies, street fairs, storefront bulletins in many languages, and the backing of preachers, teachers and community activists.

"We had authentic community leaders running the down-on-the-street program and working cooperatively with the government," said Maria Contreras- Sweet, secretary of the state's Business, Transportation and Housing Agency. "When you have reputable and authentic groups involved, you can get down to the grass roots," said Contreras-Sweet, who headed the state effort that brought together government agencies with community groups.

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The relentless advertising message worked, with rates improving everywhere. Not just in poor inner-city neighborhoods, traditionally the scene of the lowest response rates, but also in middle-class communities and affluent suburbs.

The message seems to be still working, even after the census forms were returned in the mail. The current task is to knock on doors and get responses from the 42 million households that didn't return forms in the mail.

The census enumerators--the workers who knock on the doors--have completed an impressive 61% of their tally in Southern California, compared with 50% nationally.

The advertising campaign and the backing of community leaders are vital to ensure a friendly and truthful reception when census enumerators knock on the doors. People have to believe that nobody will drop a dime, telling the IRS that Mrs. Jones has some extra tenants, college students who are paying cash. Or tipping off the INS that Mrs. Smith has two restaurant workers, illegal immigrants, sharing a bedroom in her house.

"We're concerned about the 'in-law apartments' that may have been missed," said Ditas Katague, a special consultant for the state's program. In Southern California, with its high rents, there are lots of people living in basements, or garage apartments, or houses designed for a single family. To tally these hard-to-reach people, the slogan is, "It's not too late and don't be missed," said Katague. "Community-based organizations know who these people are and where they live."

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