Census errors affect funding

by Max Rust

Though increasing numbers of Americans throw away their census response surveys like junk mail, the importance of acquiring accurate census data is stronger than ever, particularly for densely populated areas of the country such as the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood adjacent to the University’s West Bank.
Areas such as the immigrant-rich West Bank are prime for undercounting, leaving residents excluded from the census survey.
Language barriers, a high proportion of renters and transients, and reluctance to reply to government questionnaires are just a few difficulties census workers will encounter when they survey the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood in April.
A group of Augsburg math students recently completed a study measuring the economic effects undercounting has on the neighborhood. Their findings illustrate an overall economic loss for the area, compounding the problems faced by many residents with low incomes.
By plugging data from the 1990s census into a mathematical model, the group found the undercount rate for the neighborhood was 3.32 percent compared to Minneapolis’ undercount rate of 1.63 percent.
The neighborhood is experiencing a “differential undercount,” which can severely affect the funding distributed to such areas.
“You assume there’s a fixed pie that’s going to be divvied up, of, say, Minnesota state funds. If each county is undercounted by 10 percent, they’re all still going to get the same percentage. So what really affects funding is differential undercounting, when you as a group are more undercounted than everybody else,” explained Rebekah Dupont, an Augsburg math professor who oversaw the project.
Using an estimate of $2,500 of overall funding per person in the neighborhood, the students found that Cedar-Riverside would gain $255,100 per year if differential undercounting were not a factor in funding distribution.
The information will be given to community organizers who hope to stress to residents the importance of participating in the census.
“The idea is you can assign a dollar figure to it, or say, ‘If it weren’t for undercounting, maybe we’d have a school here, or maybe we’d have another park for kids.’ It’s something that will help the people who are trying to do the community organizing, to give them some numbers,” Dupont said.
The student report states the data are conservative since the project did not take into account West Bank immigration surges in the past decade, particularly the massive influx of Somalian residents between 1994 and 1995.
Not only is the language barrier a problem for convincing immigrants to complete census forms, but many immigrants are wary of giving information to government officials, a characteristic some think is growing among nonimmigrant populations.
“There’s a growing resistance to an invasion of privacy and resistance to government in general,” said Michael Munson, planning analyst for the Metropolitan Council. “People just don’t want to be bothered by it. They think it’s an intrusion.”
For many immigrants coming from war-torn countries, trust in government is low, and they are hesitant to provide the government with personal information, even though the information is kept confidential.
“The message needs to get across that this information is not shared with any other agency like the (Internal Revenue Service) or city planning or the (Immigration and Naturalization Service) or anybody else,” said David Birkholz, director for the Minnesota Data Center, an agency that works closely with the Census Bureau.
Birkholz is collaborating with local organizations to get census help from community leaders who speak non-English languages and can explain to immigrants the importance of a full census count.
Dat Dao, a community leader in the Riverside Plaza apartment complex on the West Bank, said he has been contacted by the city to get involved with helping inform residents.
Dao said it will be hard to get people involved because there is a lack of basic information as to what the census is.
“The government must give us information and a presentation on the importance of the census,” he said. “Otherwise, we don’t have any experience on that, and we don’t have the kind of vision of the importance of the census. So how could we talk about it much?”