Not long into examining the 1990 census figures, poverty researcher George Zeller came across a remarkable find. Certain streets in the heart of Cleveland's most blighted neighborhoods had little or no population -- according to the census, at least.
That seemed odd, if not impossible. Zeller had lists of welfare and other government aid recipients living in those exact areas. To investigate, he drove to Kinsman Avenue, just east of East 55th Street, parked his car, and started walking the neighborhoods in question.
"I had no trouble finding people living there," says Zeller, a senior researcher at the nonprofit Council for Economic Opportunities.
During his walk, Zeller met a preacher from a nearby church who offered the obvious explanation: Poor people were either missed by census takers or had simply failed to respond. Even more interesting to Zeller, though, was the preacher's own apathy. "He told me that he didn't bother to fill out his own census information," Zeller recalls.
Such omissions have serious consequences. The census determines not just the population count, but how much federal money is spent in a region and how many lawmakers the region sends to Washington. Businesses also rely heavily on such data to decide where to open stores, staff offices, and locate plants.
According to the 1990 census, Cleveland had a population of about 505,000. City Hall estimates that 20,000 city residents either failed to respond or were missed in that count, potentially costing the city $40 million in federal aid. Zeller, who worked closely with the city on its census marketing campaign, believes the true undercount in Cleveland was closer to 60,000 people. And he predicts the undercount will be even greater next year, in part because of apathy, but due more to the growing suspicion poor people harbor toward the government.
"The government has declared war on poor people," Zeller says, citing recent welfare reforms as one example. "Trust levels in the low-income community have reached all-time lows. The perception is that the government is out to get them."
That perception is not lost on City Hall, which is putting together an aggressive marketing campaign for the upcoming census focused on reaching low-income residents. In addition to a broad advertising and promotions effort targeting everything from buses to Bingo halls to grocery stores to schools, the campaign is taking on the distinct flavor of a grassroots political effort. During the height of the census, for instance, the city plans to distribute thousands of yard signs encouraging people to stand up and be counted.
"We see this as no less than a political campaign," acknowledges mayoral spokeswoman Laura Boustani, who would not offer an estimate on the cost of the campaign. "The stakes are as high as winning or losing an election."
In classic campaign fashion, city officials have already turned for help to church pastors, a critical constituency in any election. "We see ministers as key messengers with the people who have distrust toward the government," says Robert Brown, assistant director of the City Planning Commission, who is leading the city's census campaign. "We will go from church to church, because they are on the front lines."
City administrators and local census bureau officials recently held an interfaith luncheon, where they asked ministers to take a message about participating in the census back to their congregations. The church leaders were given talking points that stress the census data will not be shared with other government agencies, such as the IRS or the welfare department or the immigration service.
Unlike the 1990 campaign, which included public-service announcements by celebrities like Browns legend Ozzie Newsome, the new campaign is seeking familiarity over notoriety. This time, the city hopes to make pitchmen out of people from the 'hood. "The spokesmen have to be known to the people," declares Brown.
The stakes are high not only for the city, but for Mayor Mike White himself, whose tenure in office will undoubtedly be measured in some part in relation to the city's growth. White, who took office at the time of the last census, is trying to become the first mayor in decades to reverse the trend of a shrinking city. While Cleveland's population has declined since 1990, the rate of decline is slowing, a trend that White has been quick to attribute to his administration's new housing and job-creation programs. According to figures released last summer, Cleveland lost 3,800 residents between 1996 and 1998, compared with an average loss of 13,600 residents every two years during the 1980s.
Nonetheless, experts believe that the 2000 census will likely show the city's population has dropped below a half-million, a point often used to distinguish between major and minor cities. While the mark may be more psychological than practical, it will certainly impact Cleveland. Both the city's special neighborhood empowerment zone funding and other job training money is tied to the 500,000 figure.
"It will be a real challenge to keep the population over 500,000," says Brown, who believes the city's best hope is minimizing the undercount. "If we truly got 100 percent of the population to respond to the census, the population would go up."
Responsibility for an accurate count, of course, lies mainly in the hands of the U.S. Census Bureau. But that agency is facing its own set of challenges. According to Eugene Parr, office manager of the local census office, the Bureau is struggling here with its most basic task -- finding enough temporary workers to help distribute and collect census forms.
"The job market is too tight," explains Parr, who is offering workers $12.50 an hour. "We especially need people who can work full 40-hour weeks."
Census crews are needed especially in the neighborhoods that Zeller walked nearly 10 years ago. Ironically, those are the ones that stand to gain the most by being counted.
Mark Naymik can be reached at email@example.com.