Data: Census missed 82,000 in Washington

The Olympian
Originally published Saturday, December 7, 2002

Posted 2/12/03

OLYMPIA, WA-- The Census Bureau has reluctantly released adjusted data showing that the census missed more than 82,000 people when it counted the Washington state population two years ago.

Most likely to be missed were people living in rural areas of Eastern Washington, where many Hispanic immigrants might have gone uncounted. American Indians, blacks and Pacific Islanders were also more likely to be undercounted.

"Those are the hard-to-get populations," said state demographer Yi Zhao. "A lot of the people, they just don't trust the government."

Overall, the Census Bureau estimates it missed 1.2 percent of the population nationally and 1.4 percent in Washington. That's an improvement over the 1990 census, in which Washington was undercounted by an estimated 2.1 percent.

The Census Bureau had not planned to release the adjusted data, which uses statistical sampling to calculate how many people were missed by the national head count. Census officials say the figures are flawed and "dramatically overestimate" the number of people they missed.

Many Democrats, civil rights groups and big-city leaders disagree. They contend some communities are being shortchanged because the census didn't do a good enough job of counting minorities, children and the poor.

"The new census data is essential to understanding how errors in the census affect funding for cities, counties and critical programs funded with federal dollars," said U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who has pressed the Bush Administration to release the adjusted numbers.

Two Oregon state senators, Susan Castillo and Margaret Carter, both Democrats, filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see the adjusted population figures. In October a federal appeals court ordered the government to release the data.

According to the adjusted figures, in Washington the Census Bureau missed 5 percent of Pacific Islanders, 4 percent of Hispanics and American Indians, 3 percent of blacks, and 1 percent of Asians and whites.

Mattawa, a Grant County town near Yakima where 90 percent of residents are Hispanic, had the highest undercount: nearly 9 percent of the population was missed.

The counties where census-takers missed the biggest proportion of people are Franklin, Klickitat, Grant, Adams and Yakima.

Yakima County spokeswoman Lisa Freund, who led Yakima County's "Census 2000 Complete Count" committee, said the undercount could have been much worse.

Undercounting in the 1990 census hurt the county's federal funding for social services and housing programs, Freund said. County leaders estimated that one unincorporated area, Buena, was undercounted by 40 percent. County officials had to recount the population there so the area could qualify for federal block grants to rebuild failing water and sewer systems.

County leaders feared history would repeat itself when the Census Bureau failed to mail forms to post office boxes of Buena residents, Freund said. The local committee raised a ruckus to make sure Buena and other rural areas got counted.

Yakima County also ran a census hot line, in English and Spanish, to answer questions. Schools held a contest, with the classroom bringing in the most completed census forms from their parents winning prizes from McDonald's.

Washington tribes also worked with the Census Bureau to get a better count of American Indians.

Spokane Tribe Enrollment Director Georgia Peone served as the census liaison. She gave "I Count" T-shirts to low-income kids in Head Start programs to encourage their parents to fill out census forms, and handed out census coffee mugs and squeeze bottles at powwows and other events.

The revised population estimates won't change legislative or congressional redistricting. Washington leaders say they believe the difference in the official census and the adjusted numbers would not have dramatically affected political boundaries. Census Bureau officials say they don't think the adjusted data should have any official use.

But some political leaders would like to see the revised numbers used to determine federal funding, possibly redirecting money to rural and minority communities where the census may have missed more people. The census results are used to allocate the nearly $200 billion to states get for Medicaid, foster care, block grants and social service programs.

Zhao cautioned that federal funding formulas are complicated, and factoring in the undercount may cause unpredictable results. For example, she said, in rural areas census takers may miss the most people in terms of percent of the total population, but in terms of sheer numbers they miss more people in cities.


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