2000 in Review: Census Sparks a Blame Game

Long before the disputed election count in Florida, the year 2000 witnessed another rancorous feud over numbers. Chicago officials and the U.S. Census Bureau sparred over who was at fault for the city’s sluggish start to the 22nd decennial census.

Less than 52 percent of Chicago households had mailed in their census forms by late April, worse than the 54.3 percent mailed back a decade ago. Mayor Richard M. Daley, who claimed Chicago’s 1990 undercount cost the city $200 million in federal aid, rallied city workers June 1 and asked them to promote the count on weekends, evenings and during their lunch hours.

Despite the late blitz, the languid responses continued. In its July/August issue, The Chicago Reporter found that bureau workers struggled more in Latino neighborhoods than in the African American areas that made up the bulk of Chicago’s 1990 undercount. On June 15 census takers still needed information from 18,411 city households, including more than 10 percent of the households in 27 of the city’s 873 census tracts. Forty percent of those tracts were predominantly Hispanic. Nineteen percent of the tracts were black, 15 percent were white and the rest mixed.

The June 15 data provided a snapshot of the final stages of the bureau’s door-to-door enumeration. Six days later, the bureau announced it had contacted all the city’s households. But the rapid pace of the mid-June count cast doubt over the accuracy of the tally. The Reporter found that in one week, from June 9 to 15, bureau workers contacted between 22 percent and 27 percent of all the households in three of Chicago’s nine census regions. In the remaining six areas, only 6.4 percent of households were reached in the same period.

At year’s end, the Census Bureau reported that Illinois would lose a congressional seat, but the complete tally that shapes state and local political boundaries won’t be revealed until the spring. That count, most likely to be contested, could unleash a wild political slugfest.

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