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Archive for Monday, April 2, 1990

RE COUNTING ON CENSUS DATA

April 2, 1990

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Welcome to the 1990 census, the federal government's idea of a numbers game.

From population, to income, to ethnic background, to yes the number of flush toilets, the once-a-decade federal census yields data that Americans yearn to know about other Americans.

Five of six households nationwide receive a census form that asks seven population questions and seven housing questions. Every sixth household will receive a 59-question form that seeks information on housing, education, occupation, transportation and income.

This year's long form has some new wrinkles. It asks whether people living together are married, roommates or unmarried partners. Such statistics help define what an American household is in the 1990s.

ANOTHER QUESTION asks whether a person's rent payments include any meals. The question is intended to shed light on living arrangements for the growing elderly segment.

Still another question asks about payments for housing, which help to better estimate housing costs in a community.

Some may call those questions governmental intrusion into private affairs, but the Census Bureau defends its curiosity. In fiscal 1988 there were 82 federal programs that allocated $38.7 billion in money and other assistance based on census information. The programs are based not just on the number of people, but who they are, their ages and incomes, jobs and relationships to one another.

The information not only helps the federal government in identifying areas to spend money, it also assists state and local governments in their programs, marketers, planners, retailers, developers and bankers. "You can find out a lot about the quality of life in an area from the census data," said Thelma Helyar. She should know, too. As the information manager at Kansas University's Institute for Public Policy and Business Research and editor of "Kansas Statistical Abstract," Helyar fields calls on a daily basis from people seeking information that is supplied by the federal census.

"IT'S SURPRISING what information people want and can get from the census," Helyar said. "The most often asked-for information is, of course, population figures, but you also get questions about the poverty level, income, educational attainment . . . there's so much."

The information is invaluable to a diverse group of people.

Lawrence's Chamber of Commerce routinely uses information generated by the census in its economic development marketing program, Gary Toebben, chamber president, said.

"We use it all the time for prospects," he said. "Businesses like to know about the number of workers available, minority representation in the workforce, income information."

Demographic data, especially information relating to age distribution and per capita income culled from census responses, is used by retailers in determining where to locate their stores. The Chelsea Group, developer of the Lawrence Riverfront Plaza, was among those who used census data when it first considered Lawrence as a development site.

PRICE BANKS, director of the Lawrence-Douglas County planning office, said his office depends on census data for most all of its planning functions.

"The census data coupled with our existing land-use data make up the bulk of the information we use in planning," Banks said.

For example, the population characteristics generated by the census will help the city plan for its future offerings.

"If we find we have a rapidly growing population of senior citizens, we'd need to plan for different facilities than if we had an exploding younger population," Banks said.

City population figures and updated projections made annually by the Census Bureau also help the planning office when it looks at the city's and county's transportation needs.

Using technical data from the census, Banks said, planners can produce ``traffic analysis zones that tell us where people live and where people work. You put those numbers together and there's got to be ways for those folks to get from one point to the other as easily as possible."

The university community uses census data extensively, Helyar said. She's seen journalism classes researching Kansas' rural population statistics for an assignment on the historical trend of migration from rural to urban communities. Census data are used by historians, geographers and economists.

Other university researchers use the data for a number of purposes, including grant preparation.

AMONG THOSE other university census users is Arlene Slocum, an IPPBR research analyst.

"We use the data in a lot of aspects of our work," Slocum explained. "It's invaluable in economic modeling, for instance. It's important to know things about population, education, growth trends for economic development."

When will the data from the 1990 census become available to the public?

Slocum said that population figures for use in congressional reapportionment must, by law, be ready by April 1991.

"The information will be coming out in a steady stream from 1991 through 1993," she said.

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