Nevada battling to prevent lost revenue from census undercount
State and federal officials are battling suspicion and scouring the state for transient newcomers they say are key to millions in federal money from the 2000 Census.
Nevada had the nation’s lowest response in the 1990 Census with just 61 percent returning the initial census forms.
“We were dead last,” said Richard Wassmuth of the City of Las Vegas.
“And every one of those people missed costs the state money,” according to David Byerman of the Department of Commerce.
He said nearly every federal dollar not tied to some revenue source such as highway gas taxes is divided up according to population figures collected in the census. By Byerman’s estimate, that’s over $181 billion a year in federal money for state programs from public education to the environment, law enforcement grants and social programs including welfare.
He estimated every man, woman and child counted is worth $670 a year to the state. Since Nevada was undercounted by more than 28,000 in 1990, Byerman said that means the state was cheated out of $19 million in federal funds every year for the past decade – nearly $200 million in all.
Byerman said one problem in Nevada is the state’s general “mistrust of government.” But the bigger problem, he said, is that so many of the state’s residents fit the profile of those least likely to respond to census questionnaires – relative newcomers, younger workers, renters who don’t own a home and don’t have ties to the community.
“There’s a big correlation between home ownership and non-response,” he said.
Unfortunately, that describes a large segment of the population with service jobs in Nevada’s tourism industry.
“It’s a real temptation to boil this all down to race and ethnicity,” he said admitting that the Hispanic population has been more resistant to being counted than others because of an apparently deep seated mistrust of governmental motives.
“But a lot of people don’t believe we won’t turn the data over to IRS, INS or the police,” said Byerman.
He said the best example he can give is when the Secret Service asked for detail data on residents who would be temporarily living near President Harry Truman when the White House was remodeled 50 years ago.
“They wouldn’t give it to them,” he said. “And if they won’t give up the information for the President….”
Byerman said that mistrust combined with the fact it’s in the state’s financial interest to get the most complete count possible is why the Census Bureau has urged state and local officials the leaders to carry the ball this time around. Byerman said residents seem to trust their local and state officials more than the federal bureaucracy.
Gov. Kenny Guinn named Secretary of State Dean Heller to head the Nevada efforts for the Census. Heller responded by hitting every governmental level, service clubs, any public occasion he can get to to make people aware how much is at stake financially.
“We were the worst state in the nation last time and it cost us millions,” said Heller. “We can’t afford those millions.”
He has been joined by finance experts from several Nevada counties and cities who also say far too many Nevada dollars are going to other states.
Heller says Nevada is one of 19 states that sent more to the federal government in taxes than they got back in aid and services. Nationwide, the total loss to those states is in the billions.
According to the 23rd Federal Budget and the States report by Harvard University, only New Jersey and Connecticut were bigger losers – per capita – than Nevada. And that is despite a sizable federal military presence in Nevada including Nellis Air Force Base and Fallon Naval Air Station.
After defense and discretionary spending, the spending areas used to develop those numbers are all related to the population count including social security, Medicare and assistance programs such as welfare.
And the younger, poorer, transient populations most likely to be missed in the count are the same ones who most need the services provided by those dollars, said Byerman.
“We can’t afford to be last again,” said Heller. “Those are dollars that provide services to Nevadans.”