Friday, March 17, 2000

Counting on a feast for the census

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Mail marked “Resident” at my house always lands in the bin labeled “Recycling.”

        This year, I made an exception for the Census 2000 form. That one has been opened, completed and mailed.

        These forms are highly valuable to you, me and everyone in Greater Cincinnati. They offer the rare opportunity — once every 10 years — to make sure we get what's coming to us when our tax money is distributed. Census data determine how federal funds are divvied up for everything from school books to road repairs.

        We can get our fair share. But there is a catch. The forms must be filled out, completely. No questions skipped. Otherwise, the money won't come back to where it belongs.

        If the Census doesn't get a correct count for Cincinnati, tax dollars will be lost — as they were 10 years ago. In the 1990 census, 67 percent of Cincinnatians completed their forms. That's a mere 2 percent better than the national average, but 4 percent less than Columbus, the town with the top return rate among Ohio's major cities. We must do better. It's for our own good.

40 million reasons
        Worse than losing to Columbus, Cincinnati lost millions of dollars because of those 1990 Census figures. Census Bureau workers in Washington told me the city's response rate resulted in Cincinnati's population being undercounted by an estimated 8,343 citizens.

        Cynthia King, a team leader for the Census offices in Ohio, noted that over the last decade, the deflated population figure has “cost Cincinnati $40 million in federally funded projects and grants.”

        Imagine what the city could provide with $40 million. Miles of repaired streets. More cops on the street. Loans for home improvement and low- and middle-income home buyers.

        If history repeats itself with the census in Cincinnati, some other city will get our money to finish a highway. Federal dollars for a project such as Fort Washington Way could go elsewhere.

        Without an accurate census count, Cincinnati Public Schools will be hurting. The system annually receives $20 million in federal funds derived from census figures.

        An inaccurate census count will take away the money for Cincinnati Public's summer school program for second- and third-graders with reading problems. Helping buy copies of The Velveteen Rabbit and The Little Engine That Could is easy. Just fill out the forms.

        Census 2000 forms come in two sizes, short and long. The short form has eight questions for the head of the household, six for others at home, and takes 10 minutes to fill out if you read real slowly. The long form has 53 questions for the head of the house, 33 for the others, and takes about as long as an episode of Friends to complete.

        Some questions on the long form seem nosy. How much is your mortgage payment? If disabled people live in the house, do they have trouble bathing? What time do you go to work?

        “The Census is not big brother,” said Mary Groen, manager of the Census office in Cincinnati. “All answers are confidential.”

        Answers to the mortgage payment question can shift funds to Cincinnati for low-income home loans. The bathing question helps determine how much money should be set aside for handicapped access, training and care in the city. As for wanting to know what time you leave home for work, the census uses that information to learn when roads are crowded. This enables Washington to plan and pay for highways and light rail systems in Cincinnati.

Fill it out
        Toss the form or return it with some questions blank and a census taker — an enumerator as they are called in the trade — will come to your home at night. They will help you fill out the form. That's the law. Keep refusing and you could be subject to a maximum fine of $1,000 and up to one year in jail.

        Something else to consider before refusing to fill out your form: Census enumerators in Cincinnati might not put up with too much guff. Looks as if they are going to be understaffed and overworked. Applications for the part-time, night-time job are down. Way down.

        “We're hurtin' for certain,” Mary Groen said. “We need 6,000 applications for enumerators. We only have 3,200. Of the 42 offices in our region, we're dead last in terms of applicants.”

        All the more reason to take care of the census by mail. Fill out the forms. We'll all strike it rich.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

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