Four years after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, local leaders warn a storm of a very different kind is brewing. This torrent threatens a blizzard of empty government forms and unclaimed federal funding. The census cyclone is coming, and much as it did back in August 2005, New Orleans finds itself unprepared.
“Unless the census makes special provisions for those displaced by Katrina, the government will be denying the region millions in funding. Given our already stressed public infrastructure, it will be like Katrina hitting us all over again,” said Trupania Bonner, executive director of Moving Forward Gulf Coast said in a press release Wednesday.
The decennial census helps the federal government apportion $400 billion per year in federal and state funding as well as representation in the House. With so many homes still unoccupied and residents still displaced due to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Gulf Coast stands to lose money and recognition just when it needs it most.
One problem is caused by how the run-up to the census works. The Bureau has had software tests and dress rehearsals over the past three years or so, and now they’re implementing the Local Update of Census Addresses (LUCA) program, whereby local agencies contribute updates to the Census Bureau’s database to help the count itself go smoother. But the situation in the Gulf Coast has changed too quickly for any such data set to be worth much over the course of several years.
Two years ago, a report by the Government Accountability Office on LUCA specifically noted Katrina fallout as a potential challenge in getting an accurate count, but the Census Bureau took little real action at the time to correct the problem (emphasis mine):
Additional challenges stem from the damage to the Gulf Coast region caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Officials in localities in hurricane-affected areas questioned their ability to participate in the LUCA Program. The continuous changes in housing stock may hinder local governments’ ability to accurately update their address lists and maps. The condition of the housing stock is likely to present additional challenges for the Bureau’s address canvassing operation… in the form of decreased productivity for Bureau staff, workforce shortages, and issues associated with identifying vacant and uninhabitable structures. The Bureau created a task force to assess the implications of storm-related issues that proposed a number of mitigating actions. However, the Bureau has no plans for modifying the address canvassing operation or subsequent operations in the Gulf Coast region.
The GAO recommended the agency develop plans and goals specifically for the Gulf Coast region, saying that “the Bureau can do more to successfully implement address canvassing and other decennial census operations in the Gulf Coast.”
Former residents are now flooding back in certain areas and some remain without basic services such as postal delivery. The Census Bureau has since designated certain areas affected by Katrina as “Update/Leave” regions, where census materials are hand-delivered.
Will such plans be sufficient? Community leaders are asking for more.
A coalition of several local groups sent their concerns in a letter to Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-MO) chairman of the Subcommittee Information Policy, Census and National Archives. The letter referred to some degree of frustration with the Bureau, telling Clay, “Our organizations have had little contact with Census Bureau officials” and that they “would welcome the opportunity to share our concerns and propose solutions at a congressional oversight hearing.”
The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund put out a report this month detailing the potential problems facing the Census Bureau in the Gulf Coast. The organization made several recommendations on how such issues could be mitigated, including Congress holding a site hearing in New Orleans as well as mandating a second census for the area in 2012 or 2013 to verify 2010 numbers. The group also recommended the Census Bureau appoint a special senior-level Gulf Coast manager to coordinate with the regional office in Dallas.
With the state of the deficit what it is however, obtaining funds for additional hiring or future counts could prove to be difficult. But conducting a normal count in 2010 won’t come cheap, either. The limited workforce in the area means higher wages for census takers. Furthermore, as the GAO pointed out, the work will be more labor intensive, with canvas workers tasked with finding out whether damaged homes — as well as adjunct trailers — are occupied.
Though the discussion is ostensibly based on cold, hard numbers, the argument is clearly political. In a 2006 census tally, Louisiana lost nearly 5 percent of its population. While that may not sound like much, the fastest growing state in 2006 only added 3.6 percent to its population and the states following Louisiana in biggest losses all shed less than 1 percent. A recent study by the Virginia political consulting firm Election Data Services suggests Louisiana’s population hasn’t bounced back much, predicting that the state could lose a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as a result of the 2010 census.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin suggested that those who still live elsewhere but plan to return to the city should list their place of residence as New Orleans on their census forms, something which a census spokesperson said would “hurt the place where they are living, and hurt New Orleans.” Nagin has also been characterized as trying to bolster his city at the expense of others. But it may not matter in the end: Census takers are mandated to count people as living wherever they are staying and sleeping as of April 1, 2010.
Other community leaders seem to support at least the sentiment behind Nagin’s words.
“Right now, thousands of residents are still rebuilding against the odds. They are navigating tremendous red tape and almost negligible recovery assistance to get their homes rebuilt. Now, the government is saying even if you are actively rebuilding, you have to be counted where you are staying, not where you live,” Bonner said.
Over a ten-year period, funding apportioned by census figures can really add up. Throughout the decade, an average state gets approximately $12,000 per counted resident. But especially needy areas such as New Orleans get more — as much as $26,950 per capita over that same period.
The money spent according to census counts could make a difference in future residency rates as well, creating a vicious cycle of depopulation in the area. After all, without funding and infrastructure improvements, some residents still on the fence may decide it’s easier to stay where they are than move back and rebuild.
And infrastructure money has been hard to come by in New Orleans, compared with other cities. Chris Kromm, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies, said that the congressional district that is home to New Orleans got the smallest amount in federal stimulus spending nationwide from the recent government package.
The governor of Louisiana may share some of the blame for that paltry amount. As part of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s repeated criticism of the stimulus package, he singled out $1 billion for the 2010 census as wasteful.
But funding is not the only political barrier to an accurate count. Other Republicans have bizarrely suggested that the census is more than a waste and is actually some sort of government scheme to mine personal information and dilute the ballot box. Still others have suggested that the census is a way for the government and law enforcement to root out illegal immigrants, and have encouraged all Latinos to boycott the count, despite the fact that questions about legal status do not appear on census forms.
These political maneuverings will likely contribute to even fewer people being counted, either out of avoidance or neglect. Add that to the fact that minorities, poor people, urban dwellers and southerners are less likely to be counted in the census in general, and you have a perfect storm in New Orleans.
BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS