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Census: How Many Are We?

Puerto Rico census numbers are in but fall shy of predictions, the Dominican factor remains the big question

By CB Staff

May 3, 2001
Copyright © 2001 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

The 2000 Census is over, the numbers are in and the official count for the island of Puerto Rico lists a population of 3,808,610.

Yet as recently as 1997, using statistical models based on its 1990 count, the U.S. Census Bureau was predicting Puerto Rico’s population would be 3,860,091 the following year. Even the Puerto Rico Planning Board had predicted the island population would crest 4 million by 2000 as recently as three years ago.

Last week the mayor of Mayaguez said the official Census figures for that municipality are incorrect, the population there did not decrease since 1990 as the 2000 Census figures would have us believe. Mayor Jose Guillermo Rodriguez would provide data to support those conclusions but insists that the Mayaguez population has grown in the last 10 years.

Complaints about Census undercounting are as sure as death & taxes because so much rides on those numbers. Census figures are used by the federal government for the disbursement of federal funds, some $100 billion dollars worth. Federal funds coming into Puerto Rico include those earmarked for procurements, administrative expenses for federal agencies, federal salaries, educational programs, housing & food assistance, and transportation projects, including highways and the Urban Train. Data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau is used to influence the planning & distribution of funds for everything from infrastructure development and public buildings to new schools.

Federal funds based on Census statistics amounted to $11 billion for the island in fiscal 98, $12.9 billion in fiscal 99, and $12.1 billion in fiscal 2000–an important chunk of the local cash flow.

So how many people are there in Puerto Rico? With nearly half of the local economy depending on that federal funding influx, it’s important that the numbers represent a true picture of how many live on the island.

Puerto Rico ranked at the bottom of the states and territories for rate of return on the Census form. While nearly seven out of 10 household filled out a Census 2000 form on the U.S. mainland, (up 2% from the 1990 return) only 53% of the households in Puerto Rico returned theirs. The highest rate of returns came from Iowa at 76%, followed by four other states with a 75% rate of return.

In addition to the lowest rate of returns, the island of Puerto Rico is unique for its consistent influx of illegal aliens, mainly from the neighboring Dominican Republic. Census critics say that population may be the Achilles heel of the Census 2000 report.

Unlikely, say the strategic planners for the Census 2000 campaign. Census 2000 marked the first time in the history of the Census that the federal government actually created a budget to encourage participation. Some $300 million was spent nationwide in an ad campaign created by Young & Rubicam. In Puerto Rico, the local Y&R offices spent $3.5 million to get people to turn in their Census forms. All previous Census counts relied on public service announcements supplied by the Ad Council for their promotional efforts.

The marketing effort yielded an overall response rate average of 67%, actually 2% higher than the 1990 count, and the first time a count rate exceeded the count held 10 years earlier. The advertisements were focused on motivating participation among those segments of the population identified as likely to participate.

The Dominican factor

Puerto Rico is a mini melting pot. CARIBBEAN BUSINESS research estimates in 1990 listed eight different nations represented among the island’s residents with 5,000 or more citizens. The leading contributor, of course, was the Dominican Republic, then estimated at 190,000, followed by 100,000 Cubans. The survey, based on a variety of sources since no accurate reporting mechanism exists, also found Puerto Rico is home to nearly 100,000 U.S. mainland natives, 35,000 from Spain, 6,500 Arabs, and some 25,000 others from among neighboring Caribbean and Latin American countries.

Ivan Ortiz, press officer for the U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service in Puerto Rico, said last week that he could not estimate the number of Dominican nationals living in Puerto Rico now. "It would be irresponsible to report a figure since there is no scientific evidence to base the numbers on."

As recently as January of this year the former Dominican consul estimated some 40,000 refugees from the economic hardships of the nearby island would attempt to enter Puerto Rico this year. Some 2,500 to 3,000 Dominicans are transported back to that island annually.

Census officials have long recognized the problem of counting illegal aliens. Marketing efforts in Puerto Rico in 1990 emphasized the census information was embargoed from all other government agencies by law to encourage non-citizen participation.

Census 2000 formed local partnerships in Puerto Rico to enlist religious, community, and business leaders in the effort to get the undocumented population to register. Special community-related television programs on radio and television emphasized the message of safety in being counted. The Census made a special effort to hire Dominican-born enumerators to handle the count in southwestern Puerto Rico. (Yet immigration officials and members of the local Dominican community agree that most head for San Juan to seek work and blend in.)

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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