Census Undercount Feared in Poorest U.S. Areas

ROLLING FORK, Miss. – In this pocket-sized community along the cotton-field landscaped Mississippi Delta, most folks know the importance of this year’s census count.

“That’s life and death. In small town America, everything you do is predicated on federal money,” said Rolling Fork Mayor James Denson, whose town’s population is about 2,400 and is 70 percent Black.

The census is conducted once every 10 years and helps determine how millions of federal dollars are spent and how congressional and state district lines are drawn.

For the Delta, one of the poorest regions in the country, federal funding is needed for everything from infrastructure projects to preschool and feeding programs.

The 18-county region received nearly $4.8 billion in federal expenditures in 2008. That year, the South Delta School District in Rolling Fork received $1.3 million in federal money used for programs to improve student achievement. The amount was based on a formula that includes the number of pupils and census poverty estimates, among other factors.

As the U.S. Census Bureau prepares to wrap up its door-to-door count across the country next week, there are some who worry many may have been missed.

Denson found it disturbing to learn that Sharkey County, where Rolling Fork is located, is among those lagging in the Census 2010 mail participation rate. Nationally, the rate is 72 percent. It’s only 49 percent in Sharkey County. Some other Delta counties hover around the 50 percent mark. Issaquena County’s rate is 36 percent.

Denson said some residents never received a form, so he had to give them a toll-free number to call to be surveyed. He said he knows mistakes can happen. In the 2000 Census, the neighborhood in which he lived was left out of the count.

Census officials have said those missed by mail will be counted during the on-the-ground enumeration that ends July 10.

Back in May, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and some two dozen nonprofit organizations partnering with the Census Bureau on the 2010 count had called for congressional hearings about their concerns in low-income, minority and immigrant communities, including the Mississippi Delta.

They cited the potential to undercount migrant workers along the Texas-Mexico border who had already left their homes for the farming season and an inadequate number of “bilingual and culturally sensitive staff’” counting the mostly Vietnamese work force of Mississippi’s seafood industry.

Thompson said he’d received complaints in Mississippi about census forms being mailed to the wrong addresses and enumerators being sent outside their own neighborhoods to gather data.

The letters Thompson and the groups sent to Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., chairman of a House subcommittee on the census, did not lead to a hearing, but Census Bureau director Robert Groves visited Jackson, Miss., recently to discuss his agency’s response.

Groves said that advertising has been increased and that more workers have been sent into areas that needed additional follow-up. Groves has also gone to New Orleans and the Texas Colonias, poor neighborhoods in border counties that are historically undercounted as residents fear being turned over to immigration officials. There, he sought to encourage participation.

In Mississippi, some households did not receive census forms by mail because they had post office addresses. The forms are not sent to the boxes because of the difficulty with verification, Groves said.

“If I wanted, I could buy a post office box in Meridian even though I live in Washington,” Groves said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

But Groves acknowledged there’s a linguistics issue even though the bureau attempts to hire enumerators who speak the languages of their neighborhoods.

“If you have an isolated Vietnamese family who doesn’t speak English, making sure we get the language skills there is a little harder,” Groves said.

“We want to hire locally,” he said. “We have about 500,000 to 600,000 people working right now, and it’s impossible to be perfect on this.”