Florida International University

MIAMI — One reason Liberty City has only one supermarket is because so many residents don’t mail back their Census forms and don’t open their doors to Census workers.

The result?
•    Residents lose out on millions of dollars in potential federal aid.
•    Business owners, investors and banks see the area as not worth their time and money.
•    South Florida potentially loses representation in the U.S. Congress.
“In terms of the federal government, all the infrastructure of a city and how a city is built and bettered is based on the number of people that live in that community,” said Helga Silva, a Census spokeswoman based in Miami. “If we don’t get counted, the less money and help we receive.”

Many Liberty City residents didn’t get counted during the 2000 Census because they chose not to participate. Only 10 percent of local residents returned their mail-in Census questionnaires, compared to 65 percent county-wide. The Miami-Dade number was itself low, ranking 72nd among the countries most populous counties.

“The largest undercount of blacks in the State of Florida exists in Miami-Dade County in the Liberty City and Overtown areas,” said Barbara Howard of the Urban League of Greater Miami, which is working with the Census to encourage participation.

The every-10-year Census does more than just count bodies; it is vital to a community’s economic health and political clout.

The official reason for the count is to determine the number of representatives each state sends to Congress.

But federal agencies use Census numbers to determine how to allocate dollars from dozens of programs that subsidize health care, housing, education and social services, among many others.

In 2008, Miami-Dade County received about $900 million in federal aid, roughly $379 per person, according to a recent study by the Brookings Institution, a non-partisan Washington, D.C., think tank.

This means that for every 10,000 people that go uncounted, roughly the number missed in Liberty City, according to one study, the county loses nearly $4 million extra.

The 2000 Census put Liberty City’s population at about 32,000; a 2008 Census estimate showed little change. But even the Census Bureau acknowledges the number is likely low.

A study by Social Compact, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization, says the real number is closer to 49,000. The Census is required to count people one at a time; Social Compact’s methodology includes building permits, tax assessments and utility bills, among other indicators.

Residents of poorer neighborhoods are often reluctant to cooperate with the Census. Language can be a barrier. Multiple families may be living in an apartment or house meant for one.

But mistrust of government and the fear that Census information might be used by law enforcement or immigration officials is probably the biggest reason, despite laws making information collected by the Census on individuals confidential for 72 years.

“It’s not that the Census didn’t do a good job counting an area, it’s just that it’s very difficult to measure certain areas,” said Carolina Valencia, Social Compact’s research director.

But it’s not just government agencies that base decisions on Census numbers. Census data is a key factor for investors when deciding where to place their business, and Liberty City’s population and purchasing power is not appealing to investors.

That’s why supermarkets, banks, pharmacies and other businesses choose to build elsewhere. There are only 1.4 full-service grocers in Liberty City per 10,000 residents, according to the Social Compact study, less than half the number serving other poor areas like Allapattah, Overtown and Little Haiti.

The same is true of banks, forcing four out of  five Liberty City residents to pay their bills in cash and shop outside the neighborhood, sucking money out of the community and making it hard for potential investors to get a clear picture of the local economy.

“To get a loan, the bank asks for the location and statistics of the area where you’re planning to place your business. There has to be a population that demands your services,” said Marta Carrillo, a Census specialist.

Officials hope efforts to promote the 2010 Census will yield better numbers than the 2000 count. And maybe help Liberty City get another supermarket.