Tonto Basin Elementary has lost out on hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal aid during the past decade because of what Superintendent Johnny Ketchem says were incomplete census numbers from 2000. He says not everyone was counted.
Those publicizing the census locally cite Ketchem’s decade-long frustration as a cautionary tale that illustrates the ramifications of an incomplete count.
In 2000, the Census showed 10 children between the ages of 5 and 17 at the federal poverty level within the Tonto Basin school district. But Ketchem says 34 students actually met the threshold, based on other data.
As of March, 75 percent of students in the district were eligible for free and reduced lunch, which many view as a good indicator of poverty. The school has roughly 80 students.
Ketchem speculates that several factors contributed to the under counting. First, he said many residents claim they never received surveys from the Census Bureau asking for their information.
Second, a certain portion of residents feel the Census questions are intrusive. “They don’t think it’s anybody’s business how many people live in their household,” he said.
Ketchem said he filed an appeal, but appeals focus on the method method, not the results.
Tonto Basin’s budget amounts to roughly $1 million annually. “So a $100,000 is a lot of money to us,” Ketchem said. “Our local taxpayers have to pick up a bigger part of that share.”
He added, “I am really pushing the people around here to cooperate with the census people.”
Gila County’s response rate to the census was just 52 percent in 2000, according to the bureau. By contrast, 63 percent of Arizona residents responded. That number reached 67 percent nationally.
Pat Rodriguez, a state and local government partnership specialist with the census, said response rates reflect the first response to the questionnaire.
“We go back to households at least six times,” she said. “As a last resort, we’ll ask a neighbor how many people live there.”
However, Jacque Griffin, who works for the county and is helping to publicize the upcoming 2010 census, wonders what lurks in the unknown.
“What if there were 30 percent more people in Payson than got counted?” she asked. It’s impossible to gauge how many people weren’t counted. “You don’t know because you don’t know who didn’t get counted,” Griffin said.
Census data determines which community services the government provides, and also how $400 billion in federal funds is distributed each year to schools and for social services.
“They paid their taxes anyway. Why not see this community get it’s fair share of it?” said Ketchem. “It has nothing to do with politics. We’ve had the census whether it was Republicans or Democrats” in office.
The census numbers also dictate congressional districts and could alter county supervisor districts. Redistricting after the 2000 census created an additional Arizona congressional district, where much of Gila County lies.
Griffin said census data is confidential, and workers face fines and jail time if they inappropriately divulge information. Personal information is also not shared with other government agencies.
In March 2010, residents will receive questionnaires, and should provide information that’s accurate for April 1, 2010.
Residents with P.O. boxes should receive hand-delivered questionnaires at their homes.
Counting every resident in the nation could present a logistical nightmare, especially in rural places like Gila County with spread out homes and a feisty independence that can result in missed opportunities, census advocates say.
Counting homeless people also presents a challenge. “The man that lives in the woods or lives in his camper. I think he needs to be counted,” said Griffin. “But how do you find him