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Wednesday, April 28, 1999
Sheila Washington

Census looks to avoid undercount

Monitoring board seeks ways to make sure public housing residents are not overlooked

African-Americans and other ethnic groups traditionally undercounted during the census will not be undercounted in the year 2000, U.S. Census Monitoring Board Co-Chairman J. Kenneth Blackwell said, when he visited the Robert Taylor Homes and the Chicago Defender during an Editorial Board meeting Tuesday.

Blackwell, former secretary of state and state treasurer of Ohio and ex-mayor of Cincinnati, met with Chicago public housing residents to brainstorm with them and attain advice on how to best avoid undercounting residents who live in public housing, considered "hard to count" areas.

"No child, no mother and no family living in Robert Taylor Homes should be missed or forgotten when Census 2000 is completed next year," Blackwell said.

Blackwell and Board member Mark Neuman searched for new, creative ways to count those sectors of society that were undercounted in 1990, 1980 and 1970 during the nation's 10-year official attendance record.

During the last census, 95 to 96 percent of African-Americans were counted in the census, which represented and undercount of 1.8 million people, Blackwell said.  Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans were also undercounted during the 1990 census.

Accurate census numbers are important because a community's numbers determine how much government funding and public-service facilities -- like libraries, daycare centers and schools it ultimately receives.

"The census is more than just a number.  It is a tool used by many involved in solving problems of poverty and suffering," Blackwell said.

The Census Monitoring Board counts communities in "tracts," with each containing roughly a few thousand people.  It divides the nation into 60,000 tracts, with 2,000 of them deemed "difficult to count."  The later areas -- including public housing facilities -- are the ones where census officials need help from the communities.

The Robert Taylor Homes is the nation's largest single housing development.  Getting a handle on how to count its residents by people who live there could serve as a national model, Blackwell said.  In addition, Blackwell is interested in having some Robert Taylor residents voice their ideas in Washington, D.C. as they continue strategies for accurate counts.

The effort for success is starting a year in advance to ensure all avenues for accurate counting are covered.  April 1, 2000 is "Census Day" and the nation's residents will be mailed census forms, some long and others short.

The board anticipates that 72 million households will return the forms, but 46 million households will not, which is when the help from "counters," including community leaders is needed.

"People tend to look at the census as being a process that belongs to the folks in Washington, or folks at the state level or folks in city hall," Blackwell said.

"The reality is that the census process belongs to us all and just like when we don't vote, not participating in the census tends to hurt the very ones who do not participate."

Undercounts occur for several reasons, including that some people never receive census forms.  Some others, like Barbara Burchjolla, who lives downtown, simply do not respond.

"There are simply too many personal questions," Burchjolla said.  "I don't want any form asking me about personal business, but if they want to know I exist, that's fine."

Census information is confidential and not shared with the federal government, Blackwell said.

Shashak Levi Nawls, 43, has lived in the Robert Taylor Homes 37 years.  He said he wants to be involved in getting accurate counts from his community, to ensure the community its fair share in federal, state and local funds and facilities.

"There's a perception that Black men aren't interested in the census and how it affects us as residents," he said.  "And there are lot of misperceptions about information that comes into public housing.  I want to help get the people the correct information."

Blackwell promised Robert Taylor Homes residents that he would return to bring them information and further learn from them the best ways to not only count their community, but make their community count.

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