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In Newark, a High-Stakes Push to Improve the Census
Overlooked Residents Cost City Dearly in '90s

By D'Vera Cohn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 25, 2000; Page A01

NEWARK—Charles Malone pulled open the weathered metal door at the Bradley Court public housing project and shook his head. Sure enough, the census flier he had taped up only a few days earlier was gone. Drug dealers, probably. Not the first time.

Some residents in this 20-building low-rise complex, where Malone is president of the tenants association, have reason to hide from the government and are suspicious the census will create problems for them. Malone, who has volunteered to promote the census in his neighborhood, said he has been told more than once: "You can't work for those white people. They're trying to kill us off."

Up a flight of stairs, inside Rhonda Carter's apartment, he asked whether her Census 2000 form had arrived. Carter fished unsuccessfully through a pile of unopened mail and promised to look again later. Malone told her he would be back.

"He's been on me like all week," Carter said.

Hostility, suspicion, apathy, lack of time--Malone is undeterred and charges on as though the success of the 2000 Census hinges on his efforts. And, in a way, it does.

More than ever, the 2000 Census is relying on people like him to sell the count in their own communities. Even as millions of Americans receive their forms this month, the fate of the national head count is in question, for a variety of reasons. To succeed, it must improve its showing in places such as Newark, one of the worst-counted cities in 1990.

The problem the census faces is part of a broader decline in civic participation that has seen voting rolls drop and fewer people willing to perform jury duty. Some say they shun the count because they are too busy, or they resent personal questions, or they fear a government agency or landlord will find out what they told the census. Others say the questions are too complicated, or they do not see how answering the census could change anything for the better.

The cost of the 2000 Census-- estimated at $6.8 billion, the costliest in history--will grow if Americans do not mail back their forms. That is because the Census Bureau will be forced to spend millions more hiring workers to chase down the unwilling. And the bureau would lean more heavily on statistical sampling to fill in missing people, a process that has generated lawsuits and opposition from Republicans who say it would add people who do not exist.

Nationally, the mail-back response is slightly ahead of where it was at the same point in the 1990 count but varies widely across the country, Stephen J. Jost, the bureau's associate director for communications, said yesterday. The bureau will announce local mail-in rates Monday.

Undercounting 10 years ago was particularly acute in Newark, which hugs the Passaic River west of New York City. More than one in 20 residents was missed, according to Census Bureau estimates, an undercount second only to Inglewood, Calif., among the nation's largest cities.

New Jersey lost a seat in Congress that it might have held on to with a better count, and local officials say the poor tally cost them a lot of federal money, which is allotted on the basis of people counted. Their figures are open to dispute, but local census boosters say the lost funds would have been enough to build 10 schools in this battered city, now sputtering to life again more than three decades after devastating riots.

The stakes in the 2000 Census have created an energetic corps of believers here, many of whom had barely heard of the count until they enlisted to fight for it.

Malone's technique is to find something people care about, such as their children, and draw a link to the census, which he tells them could bring better after-school programs. But it is a hard sell.

"People are a little leery," he said. "When you talk about the census, it's like being a door-to-door salesman. Most people don't want to buy anything anyway."

The Newark maps under the glass top of the oval conference table in Luiggi C. Campana's city office are in color-coded detail. They show the neighborhoods that are ground zero for the campaign to promote the count. Yellow: homeless colonies. Blue: ethnic areas. Purple: public housing.

Census estimates show that Newark's population has leveled off at 267,000 after dropping for decades. Newark officials, including Campana, the city's assistant business manager and chief census technocrat, insist there are more than 300,000 people here.

Campana is coordinating a city census outreach effort that reflects the urgent hopes of Newark and state political leaders. Anyone who buys a lottery ticket, takes a civil service exam or renews a driver's license during census season in New Jersey gets a census reminder. Newark sent letters to the home of every public school student, hung banners above streets saying Mayor Sharpe James (D) wants people to be counted, and even enlisted lookouts in senior citizen apartment buildings to make sure postal carriers did not dump forms in the lobby, but placed them in each resident's mailbox.

Thanks to all the publicity, many people know the decennial census is now being taken--one national poll this month found more than nine in 10 did--but that doesn't mean they'll return their forms. Only 44 percent of Newark households mailed back their census forms in 1990. Even if the rate could be pulled up a few points--thanks to the splashy ads, the new walk-in questionnaire assistance centers, the volunteers blitzing the city, the foreign-language telephone information lines--that still leaves thousands of households for census-takers to visit.

"Now," Campana said, "comes reality."

A decade ago, Campana said, Newark officials heard horror stories about census-takers who did not bother to go into neighborhoods they were supposed to count but reported they found no one at home. They were strangers to Newark, wary of the neighborhoods and scared for their safety.

"We hope--and are trying to get assurances from the census--that individuals hired are individuals who know our city," he said.

Census officials, who hear the same concerns around the country, say they intend to hire people in their own neighborhoods. They say they are doing well in Newark, where the unemployment rate was nearly 10 percent last year. They are paying good wages--up to $18.50 an hour in the city.

"We have them," said Abigail Carter, manager of the census office that covers most of Newark. "We need more. . . . We will have Newark enumerators representing Newark."

Carter, like many other paid or unpaid temporary census workers, had nothing to do with the count before this one. She was running her own small business when her city councilman knocked on her door, introduced himself and urged her to apply for a job. She put the business on hold.

The same is true of Reva Sears, a Census Bureau partnership specialist who signs up community groups that work to promote the count. In 1990, an enumerator had to come to her house--twice--before she filled out her form.

Like Sears, Sherria Garcis had only a fuzzy understanding of the census. Then her boss asked her to join a promotional effort organized by United Way of Essex County. She sees lots of people in her community work for La Casa de Don Pedro, a social services agency. With the fervor of the converted, she recounted spending an hour talking one fearful recent immigrant into completing her census form.

It's here, at the gritty street level, where the fate of the census could be decided. So on a recent day, Garcis and La Casa co-worker Carmen Perez pinned on Census 2000 buttons and drove around to publicize the count at day-care centers and after-school programs in Newark's North Ward, where a growing immigrant population lives amid blocks of peeling Victorian homes. They filled their gray van with Census 2000 pens, posters and buttons, as well as fliers about an April 1 census rally that will feature balloons and marching bands.

At one day-care center, a receptionist coolly declined an offer of census posters: "We already have some." None was on the wall, but Garcis decided not to push it.

Then the receptionist mentioned she has heard complaints about the census form race question. It includes the category of "Black, African Am., or Negro"--the latter a word some people found offensively out-of-date if not pejorative. Garcis, a former beautician who wears an immaculate braided topknot, saw an opening.

"I just want to be counted," she said. "If we're represented the way we should be, they will have to change that."

Like Garcis, Gerri Mulligan and Terry McIntyre, who work for Hispanic Development Corp., also face animosity or skepticism as they talk up the census in a needy neighborhood 10 minutes from Newark's reviving downtown.

In some quarters, boosters have been criticized for hyping the benefits from the census, claiming it will bring hospitals or new grocery stores. But those Mulligan talks to often have too little trust in government to believe those things.

"I don't promise them anything," Mulligan said. "I tell them what we lost."

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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