Philadelphia City census botched : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

City census botched Recount ordered after we find 18,000 homes missed Building at 806 S. 6th St., South Philadelphia, was called vacant until we checked. (David Maialetti/Daily News)

Census Bureau officials in Philadelphia and across the country have been patting themselves on the back for their swift, smooth completion of the 2000 Census.

But is the count accurate?

Not exactly.

The Countess has raised enough questions about the count in one Philadelphia district that census workers are now rechecking 18,000 houses that had been declared vacant to see if anybody lives in them.

Similar examples of shoddy and possibly fraudulent work have been popping up elsewhere in Philadelphia and across the country, prompting recounts in Chicago and South Florida and audits in other areas.

In Philadelphia, census officials deny any problems. But sources involved in the count say Philadelphia's population could ultimately be at least 36,000 short because managers pressured workers to finish too fast, forcing them to cut corners and falsify data along the way.

Regional Census Director Fernando Armstrong insists that nothing has been done inappropriately. But inquiries by the Countess have prompted census workers to recheck 18,000 addresses across Center City and South and Southwest Philadelphia that may have been falsely listed as vacant or non-residential housing, sources said.

That kind of census mistake could cost Philadelphia big. It makes our population appear smaller than it is, shortchanging us federal funds and threatening one of our seats in Congress. City officials already expect Philadelphia's population to be undercounted and these mistakes only worsen the problem.

Local political leaders are not pleased.

"It's an outrage," said Christian Marrone, spokesman for state Sen. Vince Fumo, whose district includes South Philadelphia. "It's very alarming and it's something that deserves attention from congressmen in this area, from U.S. senators and from the city itself."

U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, D-Pa., called the situation "disgraceful."

"Their job is to count people that exist," Brady said. "I thought people would be more credible and honorable."

Mayor Street is "very concerned with any mistake in the count because so much is riding on this in terms of the potential for federal funds to flow into the city," said Barbara Grant, a spokeswoman for the mayor. "So if it is proven to be true that there have been errors made, we would naturally be anxious to correct the count."

Despite elaborate quality control mechanisms, the 2000 Census, like previous decennial population counts, is prone to error because it relies on human integrity. A half-million temporary workers are hired nationwide in a matter of months. They're trained quickly and sent onto streets to find people and persuade them to fill out questionnaires. Computer models and supervisors can catch some problems, but they're not foolproof.

"The whole system is built on trust, and if that breaks down then you've got a problem," said an 11-year Census Bureau veteran who now works for a congressional census oversight committee in Washington

All it takes is a local census manager pushing for speed or workers shortcutting quality control procedures and "things can happen," he said.

Bad things happened in Hialeah, Fla., where officials ordered a recount of 71,000 households. Enumerators there said they were rushed to meet deadlines.

"It's not isolated - it's coast to coast," said Chip Walker, deputy staff director of the House Subcommittee on the Census, led by Rep. Dan Miller, R-Fla. "It's the same thing, no matter what city or region . . . that it's a rush to finish."

The Philadelphia scandal centers on the central office, on Chestnut Street near 6th - one of four census offices in the city. Sources say two other offices also may have botched their counts.

"It was a rush from the beginning," said one South Philly resident who worked as a crew leader supervising enumerators. "Every other day, everything changed. They changed the rules as they went along. It was impossible to keep track of everything we did."

"There's no doubt" the quality of the work was diminished, he said. "When you tell them, 'Get it done now no matter what you have to do,' it gives them a reason to make shortcuts. I had no time to go out and check anything."

Take June 12, for example. Census enumerators were engaged in what they call the non-response follow-up phase, in which they're supposed to make up to six attempts to interview residents who didn't mail back forms.

Instead, the night before an internal deadline, a supervisor directed office clerks to list at least 1,000 households as vacant - before enumerators exhausted their efforts to find whether people lived at the addresses, according to the sources.

Those kinds of inaccuracies should have been caught in the current phase of the census, called coverage improvement follow-up. Workers are supposed to check all addresses coded as vacant, non-residential or new housing.

The operation had been slated to take three weeks. But a supervisor recently ordered work finished in seven to 10 days, said two sources present when the timetable was announced.

The supervisor told his subordinates, "Just get the three weeks out of your mind," sources said. "He said, 'We don't want to settle for number two. We want to be number one.'"

That supervisor denied to the Countess that he rushed his workers.

Regional Director Armstrong said he investigated the allegations and found no evidence of shoddy work.

"We haven't found anything that has been any kind of deviation, anything that has been any problem in the way they have done things," Armstrong said.

But even as they were claiming that nothing was wrong, the Philadelphia central office managers were scrambling to re-check their work.

Thirty minutes before meeting with the Countess, the managers met with their crew leaders and field operation supervisors to tell them they had found problems.

They told the supervisors to re-check all of the reported vacant or commercial addresses because they'd finished too quickly, said a source who was in that meeting.

Armstrong wouldn't discuss the re-check.

"I do not discuss my internal operation with non-Census Bureau people," Armstrong said. "We are still investigating. And we will do it in any office where we internally or externally feel that there is anything wrong.

"We are going back in some selected areas and we are checking them out," he said. "I feel very comfortable that the quality of the work that was done initially is there."

The Countess obtained a partial list of households that had been listed as vacant in the last two phases of the operation, and were found to be occupied during last week's recheck. Among 24 households that were checked, half were found to be occupied.

One of those addresses was an apartment on 12th Street near Federal. The Countess tracked down the residents of that apartment, Patrick Parker, 23, and roommate Jaime Weise, 24. They have lived in that apartment for more than two years.

But their apartment was listed as vacant apparently without any attempts by census workers to contact them, Weise said.

"I figured there's always inaccuracies," said Parker. "I never trust the numbers that come out."

Sen. Fumo's spokesman, Christian Marrone, said he already had doubts about the quality of the census.

Marrone, who lives on Brandywine Street in the Spring Garden section, said he never received a census questionnaire in the mail. He said a census worker came to his house and left a phone number, but he could only get a busy signal

-- Martin Thompson (, July 25, 2000

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