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Nonprofit counts Census errors

Jeff Tyler Jul 1, 2009

Nonprofit counts Census errors

Jeff Tyler Jul 1, 2009


Tess Vigeland: If you live in a big city and feel like things are even more cramped than usual, it’s not your imagination. Today the Census Bureau reported that the flight to the ‘burbs is reversing itself, partly because of the economy. But the numbers are, of course, population estimates. They miss a lot of people. A nonprofit organization called Social Compact is trying to change that. Marketplace’s Jeff Tyler reports.

JEFF TYLER: Social Compact’s researchers are like inner-city bloodhounds. They sniff out people who are overlooked by the census. John Talmage is CEO of the Washington-D.C.-based nonprofit.

JOHN Talmage: We conduct research in urban areas throughout the United States in order to access what the missed market opportunities are. So we find that missed population. The missed income.

Conventional estimates put Miami’s population at around 420,000. In its analysis, Social Compact counted more than 500,000. And it uncovered more money too, over a billion dollars in uncounted income. Its detective work focuses on poorer, minority neighborhoods, which tend to be undercounted by the census.

Social Compact sifts through more than 30 types of public and private data. Things like utility bills, which can give clues about how many people live under the same roof. Talmage says the researchers estimate underground cash economies by considering things like…

Talmage: What percentage of households pay their primary bills or utility bills in credit versus cash. How many check-cashing facilities are there in a community.

City leaders often use Social Compact’s data to attract new business to areas considered too risky or poor to support economic development. That’s what happened in the Columbia Heights district of Washington D.C.

STEVE Moore: This is a thriving urban neighborhood in a place where there wasn’t one before.

That’s Steve Moore, president of the Washington D.C. Economic Partnership. He says a Social Compact study identified 50 percent more people living in Columbia Heights than were found by the census.

The study also uncovered about 30 percent more income. The report helped Moore market the district to businesses.

Moore: It just revolutionized all of our thinking about how to bring it to market, how to talk about it with retailers, sort of what our own strategies ought to be going forward.

In the last few years, retailers like Target, Starbucks and Bed, Bath and Beyond have opened in the area. Social Compact’s study — known as a Drill Down — also helped attract a new bank.

Natalie Abatemarco is with Citigroup.

NATALIE Abatemarco: By using the analytics and the information that we got from the Social Compact Drill Down in D.C., we were able to open up a branch that is actually operating very successfully and profitably.

Social Compact charges between $75 and a $100,000 for its reports. Foundations usually pick-up most of the bill. So far, the nonprofit has studied 20 cities, including Toledo, Ohio. A few years ago, the census estimated that Toledo’s population was shrinking.

Carty Finkbeiner is Toledo’s mayor.

CARTY Finkbeiner: First of all, you don’t want to be seen as a city in decline in any way, shape or form, including population. Secondly, you wish to get as many federal dollars as you possibly can do.

One-hundred-eighty-four different public programs rely on census numbers when distributing federal money. Mayor Finkbeiner used Social Compact’s data to challenge the census estimate.

Finkbeiner: Lo and behold, the Commerce Department acknowledged in the Census Bureau that there were roughly 23,000 additional Toledoans that had been undercounted.

Detroit and San Francisco have also used Social Compact’s data to challenge census estimates. Again, John Talmage.

Talmage: So when we had 48,000 people added back to the population of Detroit, for example, they will see, over the next few years as it rotates in, $100 million of additional federal revenue.

In preparation for the 2010 census, mayors in several cities are using Social Compact’s reports to help ensure the head count in their inner-cities is accurate.

I’m Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.

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