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The Census During Hard Times: A Gift That Keeps On Giving

One of the best things that can happen to a grant writer is to have the Census roll around during a time of economic crisis, because decennial Census data hangs around for about ten years. It takes the Census Bureau around two years or so to publish the latest data, which then gets used until the next turn of the census screw. The “2010 Census” will really be used as the 2012–2022 Census.

While the Census Bureau and other data miners produce interim data, such data are mostly a hodgepodge of extrapolations, which is another word for educated guesses. It’s possible for a city or county to request a special mid-decade census, but it’s doubtful that many have the money for it, so grant writers are pretty much stuck with whatever the Census produces. It’s our job to craft compelling Needs Assessments, whether the data is good, bad or indifferent. The task becomes a lot easier when the data shows economic calamity.

Given the recent economic collapse, incomes will be down, poverty up, etc., in the 2010 Census for the kinds of target areas we usually write about. When the Census coincides with better times, such as the 2000 Census, it’s much harder to make the case that things are tough because incomes and so forth will be relatively high, but a good grant writer will make this case anyway, pointing out the lingering effects of the last recession, the coming recession, or the ever popular refrain, “the target area is an island of misery in a sea of prosperity.” But lousy census data means happy times for grant writers. The 2010 Census will be a case in point, as we will be using the dismal economic data to good effect until the year 2022 or so!

Being as old as mud, I started using census data from the 1970 Census. In 1978, I was hired as the Grant Writing Coordinator for the City of Lynwood, CA, which is located next to Compton and Watts in LA County. By the time I got to Lynwood, most residents were African American and very low-income, but one would never know it by looking at the 1970 Census data. The 1970 Census painted Lynwood as a largely middle class, white community, which it was when the Census was taken. Like its much better known neighbor, Compton, which has been immortalized in endless rap songs like N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton,” Lynwood was the victim of blockbusting and turned almost overnight from white to Black. It’s just that Compton metamorphosed immediately after the Watts Rebellion and before the Census was taken. In contrast, Lynwood changed demographically just after the Census was taken. I left Lynwood before the 1980 Census data was taken, so I spent three years writing proposals in which I had to explain away the available census data. While annoying, this helped hone my grant writing skills.

One interesting factoid about the census is that, and as reported, albeit obliquely, by the Pew Research Center in Census History: Counting Hispanics, Hispanics were not actually counted until the 1980 Census and the questions relating to Hispanic status change each census cycle, making it very challenging to make the kind of comparisons that are the stuff of needs assessments. This is compounded by the fact that the Census Bureau does not consider “Hispanic” to be a race. One can be counted as a Hispanic of any number of races and, if all are added up, this can easily total more than 100% of the population. There are various work arounds, the easiest of which is to check with the local city or county to see if they have sorted out what the percentage of “Hispanics” is in their jurisdiction.

We are currently writing an OJJDP FY 2010 Youth Gang Prevention and Intervention Program proposal for a nonprofit in Southern California. The target area was largely middle class and white at the time of the 2000 Census but is now Hispanic and low-income. So, for me it’s 1978 again and I am struggling with same data issues I was in Lynwood.

As the wheel of time turns and grant writers must use out-of-date census data for at least two more years. Look on the bright side of things––data from the 2010 Census will be absolutely awful and you can use it to your advantage for many years to come.

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