The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition
Counting in the Wake of a Catastrophe: Challenges and Recommendations for the 2010 Census in the Gulf Coast Region.

Difficulties of a Post-Katrina Count in Gulf Coast Communities

Even before Katrina, many portions of the Gulf Coast region were classified by the Census Bureau as HTC areas based on a combination of demographic and socioeconomic factors.  Some of these variables are housing-related, such as vacancy rates, percentage of renters, and number of people living in a household.  Some are related to economic factors like unemployment, poverty, and public assistance.  Others include education and the number of households with limited English proficiency.  History shows that groups including African Americans, Latinos, renters, and people who have recently moved are all likely to respond to census questionnaires at lower rates.

Add to those conditions the special circumstances facing communities affected by Katrina: massive destruction and depopulation; uneven and incomplete recovery; difficult-to-classify addresses; people in temporary living arrangements; rapidly changing conditions generated by ongoing rebuilding; and distrust of government enhanced by the failures of preparedness, response and recovery.  All of these make the task of an accurate count more challenging, as local advocates noted in their letter to Rep. Clay:

It is well known that the decennial census is more likely to miss people of color and the poor than other demographic subgroups.  The destruction of entire communities and displacement of thousands of residents along the Gulf Coast during the hurricanes of 2005, coupled with the slower pace of rebuilding and return-migration in poorer neighborhoods, compounds the usual difficulties the Census Bureau faces in enumerating so-called "hard to count" populations groups. 

Among the specific challenges cited in the letter: "Mail service in blighted communities might not reach all homes in various stages of renovation, even if homeowners have started to move back in, and census takers may find it difficult to navigate unsafe and unmarked streets to reach unresponsive households and to determine correctly the occupancy status of many structures."

The Greater New Orleans Community Data Center (GNOCDC) reported in March that many New Orleanians are still doubled up with family members; a large number still live in temporary housing; and "homeless service providers have found a shocking number of bed rolls in abandoned buildings throughout the City, indicating a large presence of this particularly hard-to-count population."5

In addition, ongoing development in some areas could add a significant number of housing units between this summer's completion of the Census Bureau's address canvassing which will be used to prepare its master address list and Census Day next April 1.  For example, while "the scale of blight" remains high in Orleans, St. Bernard and Jefferson parishes, with 65,888, 14,372, and 11,516 unoccupied residences respectively, New Orleans added more than 8,500 housing units actively receiving mail in the past year.6

Another indicator of significant challenges to an accurate census count in Gulf Coast states is data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation's annual KIDS COUNT ranking of the well-being of children.  Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi rank 48th, 49th, and 50th, respectively, on 10 key indicators of child well being.7 Young children are disproportionately undercounted in the census compared to other age cohorts.  Other factors analyzed by KIDS COUNT also reflect characteristics of hard-to-count communities, including the percentage of children in single-parent families and living in households where no parent is employed full time, making it clear that young children in the Gulf Coast region are at particular risk of being missed.

Next Section: Good News from the Census Bureau

5. Plyer, Allison and Susan Sellers, "Census 2010: New Orleans has to get it right the first time," Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, March 23, 2009.

6. The Brookings Institution and Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.

7. The Annie E. Casey Foundation, "2009 Kids Count Data Brief," July 2009.  <datacenter.kidscount.org>

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