Thursday, March 22, 2001

Cincinnati suspects census undercount

By Ken Alltucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The U.S. Census Bureau's Cincinnati office was the least productive, with the highest employee turnover rate in the Midwest region, prompting some local leaders to question whether the federal government accurately counted the city's population.

        Census figures released last week showed Cincinnati's population slid 9 percent to 331,285 over the last decade, one of the largest declines among major U.S. cities.

  Click here to look at census numbers for your Ohio neighborhood, city or county. To do a local search, type in a zip code, or click on "Interactive Census Map." You may also search Kentucky, Indiana and other states whose data has been released.

        Now that census figures are out — and government bureaucrats comb through them to reallocate millions of dollars in federal and state aid to cities — some Cincinnati leaders question whether the city got a fair count.

        Of particular concern is a federal congressional report highlighting many problems that plagued the Census Bureau's Cincinnati office.

        According to a report compiled by the U.S. Census Monitoring Board in 2000:

        • Cincinnati was the least productive among 42 census offices in Ohio, Michigan and West Virginia.

        • Nearly three of every four census workers quit the Cincinnati office before the count was completed, forcing the Census Bureau to bring in workers from other offices.

        • The office had difficulty hiring census workers from some of the toughest neighborhoods to count people, including Over-the-Rhine and Winton Hills. Instead, counters were brought in from suburban Blue Ash and Hamilton to count Cincinnati's inner-city neighborhoods.

        City Councilman Paul Booth said he will urge the city's planning department to scrutinize the Census Bureau's final tally because of the problems cited in the report.

        “I think the report gives the city pause for concern,” Mr. Booth said Wednesday.. “I think we ought to review the count and make a determination of what we can do.”

        City Planning Director Liz Blume said her staff will review the population count block by block to figure out whether the Census Bureau's early troubles skewed the final count. If discrepancies are found, Ms. Blume said she'll recommend that the city challenge the count.

        Census officials acknowledge the Cincinnati office had a difficult start but added that problems were corrected and had no impact on the final count.

        “We had problems and we dealt with them,” said Tom Chodzko, assistant regional manager for the Census Bureau in Detroit. “I am pretty confident that it was an accurate count.”

        The final number is critical for several reasons. In addition to funding, the count will be used to redraw congressional and state legislative boundaries, potentially costing Cincinnati political clout.

        Businesses also use census fig ures to decide where to build new stores. That's especially important for Cincinnati as it tries to develop more downtown housing. Housing advocates warn that people are reluctant to move downtown or into neighborhoods nearby unless services such as grocery stores and dry cleaners are available.

        The Census Bureau has refused to release another set of “adjusted” numbers that are statistically altered to compensate for undercounts in cities and rural areas. Experts think the Census Bureau's final count missed 3.3 million people nationwide.

        The Census Monitoring Board, established by Congress in 1997 to oversee the 2000 count, reviewed the region's census efforts during three visits to Cincinnati, in April, May and June.

        The Cincinnati office had a difficult time completing its goal of counting people who failed to return questionnaires because it couldn't recruit enough workers, the report said.

        Its chief problems were a high workload and difficulty hiring workers. The Cincinnati office had more work because just 53 percent of city residents returned questionnaires, the lowest response rate of any city in Ohio, Michigan or West Virginia.

        The Census Bureau blamed the staffing troubles on the Internal Revenue Service, which hired about 5,000 temporary workers at the same time the census sought temporary help.

        When the Cincinnati office found workers, it had trouble keeping them — 73 percent of the workers quit before the job was finished. Also, more than 65,000 questionnaires were returned by the Postal Service because addresses didn't exist or were invalid.

        The monitoring board gave better marks to Cleveland's census office. Yet Cleveland Mayor Michael White recently said he'll challenge the census numbers through an appeal process or lawsuit if necessary.

        Census spokesman Kim Hunter pointed out that census estimates for Cincinnati's population decline were nearly identical with the 2000 count. Cleveland's final count, on the other hand, was much lower than earlier estimates.


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