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Monday, June 26, 2000
City News Service
Emmet Berg

Local Collaboration Made LA Census More Accurate

Unprecedented collaboration between government agencies and community-based organizations helped the Los Angeles area achieve a more accurate census count, panelists told a federal census board today.

"Our goal was to make everyone count, and it began by making people feel important," said Jan Perry, director of the Los Angeles Census 2000 Outreach Project.

Today`s U.S. Census Monitoring Board field hearing was held to solicit feedback on the census from panels made up of local officials and representatives of activist groups.

Although final census figures have not yet been released, the rate of return on mail-in census forms in Los Angeles County is up to 62 percent this year -- above the 60 percent mark achieved in 1990.

The federal regional director of the census, John Reeder, said a controversy over the use of statistical sampling to determine population, rather than the "head count" method, helped the census become more visible in the public eye before forms were even mailed out.

Overall, Reeder said, a triple punch of advertising, school-based outreach and "neighborhood walks`" made the census more visible and accessible than ever before.

"For example, Spanish speakers would see our Spanish ads, then the MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) ads, and then the kids come home from school and pester them to fill out a census form," Reeder said. "They were just inundated."

Reeder added that complaints from residents receiving the ``long form`` constituted "a very small percentage" of the whole.

According to panelists, concern over a census undercount -- resulting in less federal aid and services to communities that are more populous than the census indicates -- spurred collaboration in the many ethnic neighborhoods in the Los Angeles area.

Census officials advertised in 80 different languages and, when possible, employed well-known local community figures to transmit news about the census.

The results of the small-scale targeted outreach helped close-knit ethnic families police themselves to make sure no one was left out, they said.

Board Co-Chairman Kenneth Blackwell likened the census community outreach to his own experience of growing up in the "projects."  Back then, Blackwell said, the Internet wasn`t around. But the "auntie- net" made sure that necessary information got around to everyone who needed to know.

In 1990, the year of the last nationwide count, almost 4 percent of population of the city of Los Angeles went uncounted.  That`s about 138,000 people, including 52,000 children, according to census statistics.  In economic terms, the amount of federal funding lost due to a 3.8 percent undercount was estimated at $372 million over 10 years. A private audit set the figure almost six times higher, at $1.8 billion.

Accordingly, census takers sought out traditionally undercounted groups, such as the disabled and homeless populations, which would not have been possible without the help of many community- and faith-based organizations, panelists said.

The results of outreach efforts were such that, in several instances, historically undercounted areas such as South Whittier responded to census forms in much higher percentages.

Noelle Minto, a representative from county Supervisor Gloria Molina`s office, said the rate of return of census forms in South Whittier jumped 27.5 percent from 1990 to 68.2 percent.

By involving local governments and community organizations, according to panelists, census officials avoided many of the stigmas that segments of the population place on the federal government.

For example, in some Central American nations, censuses are used in punitive ways such as tax assessments, causing many foreign-born residents here to be wary. Concerns over immigration status also loom large, according to panelists.

"They fear the federal government more than they fear us," said Lari Sheehan, a Los Angeles County administrative official.

Asked to make recommendations on the process, panelists said the census served as a nexus through which government agencies and private organizations can get together and find the best ways to reach people who historically are hard to find. That kind of collaboration is rare and shouldn`t come only once every 10 years, several panelists advised.

"The legacy we`ve learned here is collaboration," Perry said.

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