Philadelphia counting on census to increase federal funding

By Michael Matza


Hot rhythms pour from a sidewalk speaker at Centro Musical, a compact-disc shop near Fifth Street and Lehigh Avenue in a heavily Latino part of North Philadelphia. Largely Puerto Rican, the enclave called El Centro de Oro, or Golden Center, has swelled in the last decade with Dominicans, Colombians, Venezuelans, and other Hispanic immigrants.

Most are in the United States legally and say so proudly. Others are not, and fear government notice. The result is a community widely thought to have been undercounted in the last federal census 10 years ago.

Absent an all-out effort to reach everyone, neighborhoods like El Centro de Oro could come up short again in the 2010 census, which commences Monday as questionnaires begin arriving by mail.

Census takers are always fighting the last war. In 2000, the mail-back response from Philadelphia was 61 percent, 11 points below the national average. In the three census tracts of El Centro de Oro, it was almost 30 points below.

In Montgomery, Bucks, Chester, and Delaware Counties in Pennsylvania, and Burlington and Gloucester Counties in New Jersey, the reply rates were about 80 percent, 8 points higher than the national average. Camden County’s was 74 percent, pulled down by a 50 percent response from the city of Camden.

In many communities, those figures are helping dictate the breadth and urgency of outreach this time around.

So while ceremonial proclamations by county commissioners and postings on township Web sites are the rule in the suburbs, in Philadelphia the $500,000 Philly Counts! campaign is putting on a full court press.

For every person not counted, the city loses about $2,800 in federal grants, said Philly Counts! executive director Patricia Enright, citing a recent Brookings Institution study of the relation between census data and federal aid.

In fiscal year 2008, Brookings found, Philadelphia received roughly $4.4 billion in federal grants based “in whole or in part on decennial census statistics” showing a population of slightly more than 1.5 million.

Chester County doesn’t rely on “big programs or big events” to promote the census, said Bob Walker, a data specialist with the county planning commission. Instead, it leaves literature at agricultural fairs and asks local churches to urge parishioners to fill out the forms.

Extra effort is going into rural parts of the county where “libertarian-oriented” residents might be “leery of government” asking questions, Walker said.

This time, the census questionnaire is a short form that does not inquire about income or housing values, he said, so the county’s mail-back response – 79 percent in 2000 – is expected to go higher.

The 10-question form, to be mailed back by April 1, is designed to count both citizens and non-citizens residing in the United States. It allows respondents to write in their nationality. It asks basic questions about household size and composition. It does not ask for Social Security numbers or immigration status. It doesn’t even require a stamp to reply.

Nonetheless, immigrants often fear it.

“A lot of people, they don’t trust it,” said Puerto Rico-born Juan Cintron, 52, waiting for a prescription at 5th Street Farmacia, across the street from Centro Musical.

“People are afraid” of being singled out or having their identity stolen, he said. “They don’t really know what [the census] is for.”

Collaborating with the city’s Commerce Department, Philly Counts! is planning drives in 62 commercial corridors, from the Hispanic enclaves of North and South Philadelphia to sections of Southwest Philadelphia populated by West African immigrants, from Chinatown in Center City to the African American neighborhoods of Germantown and West Oak Lane.

Last week, Philly Counts! field director Jeff Scott took posters, fliers, and a team of census advocates to businesses in El Centro de Oro.

They wanted merchants’ help in educating customers about the impact of the census on daily life, including the location of health clinics, supermarkets, and job-training centers, and decisions on the number of bilingual teachers to hire for the public schools.

After mail responses are tallied, the Census Bureau will send teams of “enumerators” into neighborhoods to knock on the doors of people who didn’t respond. In Philadelphia, it could require as many as 6,000 temporary workers, making $15 to $17 an hour. In Camden, which has promoted the census with “job fairs” for prospective enumerators, at least 300 may be hired, said a spokesman for Mayor Dana L. Redd.

They will obtain data through personal interviews. But invariably they will miss some people, which is why both cities want to raise the mail-back rate.

African American men are another hard-to-count group, according to a recent study by the Ford Foundation.

It identified several obstacles to their participation, as well as that of undocumented Latinos: reluctance to divulge personal information; embarassment at not knowing how to fill out the form; fear of deportation; cynicism about the census’ value in effecting social change; and fear of government’s involvement in their lives.

In a focus group of undocumented Latinos, researchers noted, “the fear connecting census participation to deportation was so prominent that [they] were even reticent to fill out the census form in a mock exercise. They perceived the form as a trap.”

While census figures are critical in determining the make-up of legislative districts and apportionment of congressional seats, those issues do not resonate strongly with the general public, the research showed.

More potent is a pitch that connects the census with the pocketbook.

“. . .It’s just not smart to leave money on the table for somebody else to take,” a test-marketed ad goes. “Filling out the census helps organizations that advocate for our community fight for our fair share of government money.”

Self interest is a powerful motivator, said Scott, of Philly Counts! “What’s in it for me?”

Support for the census voiced by trusted community members, he said, can be more persuasive than public service announcements by celebrities – although plugs have come from the likes of actress Eva Longoria-Parker and Gov. Rendell.

Cristina Gonzalez, whose grandfather founded Centro Musical in the 1960s, believes she can convince her customers – with a few powerful words – to stand up, be counted, and help change the neighborhood’s fortunes.

“We as a people can actually get together,” she says she will tell them, “and make some noise.”

Contact staff writer Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or an interactive map that will track and regularly update mail-back response throughout the region, go to: 

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