Augusta counts on accurate census numbers

If motorists find a little less traffic congestion on Washington Road before year's end, it won't be by accident.

It will be the result of another sort of congestion: the city's population.

Adaptive lights that adjust their timing based on traffic will soon be installed along this major thoroughfare and at two other locations - on Wrightsboro Road from Barton Chapel to Marks Church roads and at Fort Gordon Gates 1 and 2 on Gordon Highway, said Richmond County's traffic engineer Steve Cassell. Bulbs on the signals will be changed to LED lighting for energy savings.

Funding for the project comes from a $1.96 million energy block grant the city was approved for in August, said George Patty, the executive director of the Augusta-Richmond County Planning Commission. Augusta is an entitlement community for such energy grants funded through stimulus dollars, he said, and the city's population qualified it for the money.

"We would have not gotten that block grant if we had been a smaller city," Patty said.

His comment neatly sums up the concern among some locally as the nation nears the midway point of the 2010  census and census takers begin hitting the streets this month. A low count could cost the city thousands - if not millions - of federal dollars. And, according to those whose mission it is to make sure as many people as possible get counted, there are demographic factors that can work against that goal.

Augusta has three of the key ones - a high poverty rate, a large minority community and lots of young folks.

Asked whether a community such as Augusta should be concerned about being undercounted, Saralynn Stafford, the lead staff person for Gov. Sonny Perdue's Complete Count Committee, had a one-word reply: "Definitely."

Stafford said Census Bureau officials told the committee during a presentation last year that high - poverty areas and young black males from 18 to 25 who "move around a lot" were among the hardest to count.

"So nobody knows whether they should count them or not in their forms," she said about black men  in this age group.

According to 2008 American Community Survey data, the median age of the city's black male population is 28. Comparatively, the median age of Augusta's white male population is nearly 10 years older, at 37.

Richmond is one of only 18 counties in Georgia - the state has 159 - with a majority African-American population, as 52.2 percent of its residents are black. That majority minority percentage rises to 55 percent when the city's Hispanic population, another ethnic group historically undercounted, is added.

A 2008 National Poverty Center study on the last census confirmed the reality of undercounts among these groups. The report said that while the Census Bureau estimated there was a 1.3 percent overcount in 2000, blacks were undercounted by an estimated 1.8 percent and Hispanics by 0.7 percent.

Add those factors to Augusta's nearly 24 percent poverty rate, which is among the state's highest, and it raises the possibility for a perfect storm that could threaten the city's access to the $400 billion in federal dollars doled out annually for the next 10 years.

The importance of getting the word out is a prime mission of the local Complete Count Committee, said co-chairman Mallory Millender, who is the historian for Paine College. He noted that on April 10 volunteers went door to door in the Laney-Walker Boulevard area to remind residents of the importance of returning census forms.

Millender said the 30901 ZIP code, which includes Laney-Walker and other parts of the city's urban center, is a prime area of focus for the group.

As of last week, however, certain parts of that area were lagging in mailing back census forms.

The state's mail-in participation rate is 69 percent, the same as Augusta so far. But some sections of the city's 30901 area are doing much worse - May Park is at 57 percent; Harrisburg also is at 57 percent; and East Augusta and Laney-Walker are both at 64 percent.

A lack of participation, leading to a potential undercount, could prove financially and politically staggering. Stafford said the Census Bureau estimates that each person counted is worth $1,700 in federal dollars to the state. She added that population estimates suggest that Georgia could get two new congressional districts if it gets an accurate count.

"They use those population estimates for a lot of formula-funding of federal programs back to Georgia ... determining the number of schoolrooms, school funding, road funding, health and human services type funding, all types of grants are determined on a population basis," Stafford said. "So, if we don't have an accurate count, the state is still going to be responsible for providing infrastructure for folks who perhaps didn't turn in their census forms. It costs the state more to do what it has to do if accurate numbers don't go back to the U.S. Census."

Census officials couldn't say whether Richmond County was undercounted in 2000, but Augusta was one of 34 cities that participated in a United States Conference of Mayors survey on the fiscal impact of a census undercount. In the 1999 survey, city officials said they expected a 2.5 percent undercount.

Large counties are affected even more by an undercount, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers study for the U.S. Census Monitoring Board. The reason, the 2000 study states, is that counties with large populations generally experience undercount rates that are higher than the state average, making it likely that they will fail to receive their proportionate share of any funds distributed by the state based on unadjusted population counts.

Patty said he believes the city was undercounted, although he noted that annual population estimates leading up to the 2000 census had Augusta at about 190,000 but the final tally came in at almost 200,000.

"I'm sure we were, just based on the nature of our population," he said. "The more poor people you have, the more you're going to be undercounted. They're going to be reluctant to disclose information."

Eastview Community Center on Aiken Street represents the connection of federal dollars to population. Nearly half of the $510,000 to build the 9-year-old facility, which has two large meeting rooms, a kitchen and softball field among its offerings, came from Community Development Block Grant money. The amount of the grants, used to improve public facilities in low-income neighborhoods, among other things, can be affected by population loss.

"Without the CDBG, we couldn't have built the center," said Tom Beck,  director of Augusta's recreation and parks department. He estimated that his department has  received at least $3 million over the past 12 years from block grants. "Without those total population numbers, we wouldn't be eligible for some of the programs."

For east Augusta residents, the center has been an important gathering spot. Programs for seniors and activities such as bingo are held there, and it has held community and political forums.

"I think (the center) is important because it gives people a focal point to come together for various activities," said Bill Mitchell, its director.

East Augusta has one of the lowest mail-in participation rates for the census. Millender said residents in these poorer communities should make sure they are counted because many of the federal dollars that could be lost would be headed to their neighborhoods.

"This is free money to us based on our returning the forms," he said. "It's a chance to make a financial contribution without coming out of your own pockets. And it's the people usually who don't return the forms who benefit the most from the services provided.

"So the person is literally taking money out of their own pockets when they don't return the forms."

Counting Richmond County

Richmond County's official population from the past five  census counts.

1960: 135,601

1970: 162,437

1980: 181,629

1990: 189,719

2000: 199,775

2008: 199,486*

*Latest population estimate from the American Community Survey.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau