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Undercounting in census a problem for Black Belt

The theme for the 2010 Census is “It’s in Our Hands.” Those words are true in more ways than one.

In some areas, particularly in the Black Belt, concern has heightened about the undercounting of residents.

The U.S. Census Bureau is putting more emphasis on counting its citizens this year through training workers and making the counting process simpler for households.

Darryl Lee, a senior partnership specialist with the Census Bureau, called available federal grant money to a $300 million pie.

By not returning Census information, people allow the Black Belt to leave a portion of the pie on the table.

“People need to understand that once the numbers are counted, that’s the way it will stay for 10 years,” Lee said. “There’s no going back and adjusting things five years later. That’s all you get until 2020.”

Lee coordinates partnerships with counties in Alabama to recruit and train Census workers. Dallas County falls into the 33-county area of the Montgomery local office.

About 6,000 people are needed just to work that area for the upcoming census. Those jobs include anything from address verification — the first stage of the process — to following up on unreturned forms.

Unlike previous years when some households received a long form, everyone will receive a short form in 2010.

Lee said that’s because some people are anxious about submitting personal information like Social Security Numbers. There is also fear among people who are illegal aliens or who are receiving government assistance.

“We just want to count people, and that’s all,” Lee said. “All we care about is how many people are in your house, race, things like that. It’s a seven-question form, and it takes 10 minutes to fill out.”

The problem of undercounting manifests itself primarily through the financial situation the Black Belt finds itself in.

“Let’s just say you’re applying for a grant,” said Debra Reeves-Howard with Selma CareerLink. “The amount of money you get depends on the amount of people that live in the area. If you have 200,000 people, of course you’re going to get more money.”

Reeves-Howard is supervising recruiting and testing for workers in Dallas, Sumter, Lowndes and Perry counties.

CareerLink provides on-the-job training and pays up to half the salaries of workers in new businesses for a period of time, which is only possible through federal grant money.

That’s a useful tool when recruiting industry, Reeves-Howard said.

Federal money also touches other areas of life in ways most people don’t realize, according to Felicia Pettway, a civic engagement facilitator with Wallace Community College Selma.

“Because we do not adequately report our people, we can’t get enough money to fix our roads, which is a passion for rural areas,” Pettway said. “Money for farmers and federal aid — they can’t get that. Money for police and sheriffs, you can’t get that either. But most importantly, education. People are complaining about our schools and how we can get better, but we can’t because we’re not reported and counted correctly.”

Several Black Belt areas have also come under fire for reporting faulty voter rolls. The Alabama Secretary of State and Board of Registrars compares registered voters to Census numbers, said District Attorney Michael Jackson, and may suspect voting fraud.

Jackson believes part of the problem is that workers are often not fully trained to canvass rural areas. Some households also fail to account for younger people living there.

“Sometimes the numbers are just not going to match up,” Jackson said. “Of course we’re going to always do our best to combat legitimate voter fraud.”