Graf, Iowa, population 93, needed money to maintain its main street. So it did what the mayor calls “the common-sense thing.” It asked for a special census, and got it.
Like hundreds of other U.S. counties and cities, Graf contracted with the Census Bureau to have its residents counted between national censuses. As in other towns, the special census raised Graf’s official population count, generating cash for the city’s coffers. So like many other communities, this town is expected to ask for yet another special census.
Graf is by far the smallest community to have a special census between regular “decennial,” or 10-year censuses. Still, Graf’s case illustrates the intimate tie between the census and money. It also shows how important an accurate population count is to communities large and small now that America’s population is growing and shifting faster than ever.
Indeed, the demand has been increasing for special censuses that is, for extraordinary head counts requested and paid for by towns, cities, counties or groups of local communities and then conducted by a small Census Bureau team.
Naperville, a city of 135,000 lying roughly 30 miles west of Chicago, “is now in the middle of suburbia,” says Gary Karafiat, Naperville’s manager of community relations. He says the city had a 53 percent growth rate between 1990 and 2000, and was the fastest growing in the state. It requested and got special censuses in 1992, 1994, 1996 and 1997.
“The amount of extra revenue we get from a special census varies each time. But I know that in 1997, the census cost us $100,000, and it meant that we received $800,000 of added revenue from taxes like the motor-fuel tax that are based on population,” said Mr. Karafiat, who added that the 2000 population figures are already outdated.
Marvin Raines, the U.S. Census Bureau’s associate director for field operations, reports the bureau performed 360 special censuses after the 1980 census and 437 after the 1990 head count. Now, bureau executives are weighing whether to phase out the program.
Tom Bredeweg, the executive director of Iowa’s League of Cities, said, “We’re astounded the Census Bureau would even think of eliminating the special census. Don’t take it away.”
However, Mr. Raines says the demand for the program is so obvious, it’s likely to be continued.
As in the regular census, the count in this instance also is conducted using mailed questionnaires with follow-up visits to persons who don’t respond.
The questions asked in special censuses are generally the same as those on the short census form. They ask for a list of residents in each household and for each occupant’s sex, age and race. Occasionally, questions are added to help a community in planning. This is done, for instance, when a city is debating the need for a light-rail transportation system and when officials want data about residents’ travel patterns.
Graf’s mayor, Howard Tyler, explains that as a result of its special census, Graf qualified for an additional share of state tax rebates and received enough money to fix Graf Road, the main thoroughfare, and repave Graf Court and Lola Lane, the city’s two other thoroughfares. The streets got a fresh layer of gravel plus a dousing with sealant.
“It’s not macadam, but it’s what we call affordable paving around here. And unless we got an accurate population count, we wouldn’t be able to afford that,” he said.
“We’ve got two new homes going up since census 2000. One’s for a married couple with kids, and they’re going to have more. The other’s for newlyweds. They’ll have kids, too. We’ll need another special census soon,” he added.
So Graf a one-sawmill and soon-to-be 25-home community 10 miles west of Dubuque is aligned with Phoenix and surrounding Maricopa County, Ariz.; Naperville, Ill.; Fayettesville, Ark.; West Des Moines, Iowa; and many other cities in a push to assure that the Census Bureau continues the 20-year-old but seldom-publicized special census program.
The cities’ lobbying follows the census officials’ decision in October not to release a second adjusted set of census numbers that was based on a huge population sample and was expected to compensate for the estimated 3.4 million residents missed on April 1, 2000. Sampling a politically controversial statistical technique involves gathering facts from a representative portion of a group and attributing the findings to the entire group.
If the adjusted numbers had been released, they would have been used to calculate how $185 billion in federal funding will be dispensed to states and by states.
States typically use the official census count when determining what share of returnable taxes each community will be given.
However, there are states, Iowa among them, which refuse to rely on population figures based on sampling which means that cities with known or suspected undercounts wouldn’t have benefited if the Census Bureau’s adjusted numbers had been released.
Such communities, especially those gaining population, face a continually worsening situation: As more people arrive, the city’s share of the state revenues remains pegged for a decade to a mistakenly low count.
The way out of the dilemma is to have a special census conducted without sampling, one that the state will certify. That’s what Graf did.
After the 1990 census, the town was credited with a population of 78 persons. But the city fathers knew that was wrong. They asked for a recount. The number dropped to 66 possibly because errors were found in returned census questionnaires. Then, in 1996, Mr. Tyler asked the council to seek a special census. He personally visited townsfolk and asked them to participate. They did, and the count went to 93, which the state certified.