No consensus

In tract 918, wary residents avoid US tally

Nicole MacFarland, with her daughter Danielle Johnson, tried to persuade some relatives to fill out the census. Nicole MacFarland, with her daughter Danielle Johnson, tried to persuade some relatives to fill out the census. (Joanne Rathe/ Globe Staff)
By Jenifer B. McKim
Globe Staff / May 6, 2010

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If there ever was a place that could use government help, it is census tract 918 in Dorchester.

The streets of tract 918 are dotted with tired-looking triple-deckers, abandoned buildings, trash-filled lots, and “No Trespassing’’ signs. It has a large number of very poor families. Its residents, including many immigrants, complain they are under siege from violent crime, with drug dealers on street corners and frequent shootings.

Yet the residents of tract 918 are reluctant to be counted. The neighborhood has the lowest response rate in Eastern Massachusetts to the 2010 Census, which the federal government will use to determine where to spend billions on public safety, child care, street repairs, and other services.

Starting on Saturday, thousands of government workers began descending on this Dorchester neighborhood and census tracts across the United States to cajole reluctant or forgetful residents to complete the questionnaire’s 10 questions. But the Census Bureau’s door-to-door effort to count every American is expensive. It costs the US Census Bureau $57 to reach a single household in person, compared with just pennies for those who mail their forms back.

And the job, to count every person in America by the end of the year, is especially challenging in this area where many residents are skeptical, or afraid of government.

“They are getting some doors that are shutting in their face,’’ said Claudia Smith Reid, the Census Bureau’s local office manager. “You still have the challenge of trying to break through the barriers of those who have immigration issues and who have a fear of participating in anything governmental.’’

So far, only 42 percent of tract 918 households have returned census forms, compared with 61 percent for all of Boston, and 73 percent for Massachusetts.

On several tours through tract 918, few residents would say they had not filled out the census form. Those who did said they either didn’t have time, never got the questionnaire, or complained it would not make any difference in a community that already feels neglected.

Shirley Davis said she has been busy. Leaning on the fence in front of her home, the 50-year-old Davis said, “Don’t worry, I’ll get it done today.’’

At a clothes store on Bowdoin Street, a young Cape Verdean man who declined to give his name said he didn’t get the point of the census. “I don’t care about that stuff,’’ he said. “I don’t think it matters.’’

Nearby, Donna Milsap, was returning from a bike ride with her toddler and paused at her doorstep to acknowledge that she simply forgot. But she then vowed to send in the form, saying it was important for her neighborhood.

“We need all the support we can get,’’ Milsap said.

After mailing her census questionnaire, 30-year-old Nicole MacFarland said she could not persuade some of her relatives to do so.

“They look at it like it is a bad thing,’’ MacFarland said from her front stoop. MacFarland draws a connection between the census and the living conditions in her neighborhood. She said she worries about the prospects for struggling young mothers and the local “dope boys.’’

“It’s our duty as Americans’’ to answer the census, she said.

Bound by Columbia Road, Geneva Avenue, Bowdoin and Quincy streets, tract 918 is a compact, irregular square in the middle of Dorchester, and one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods. In April alone, there were at least eight assaults in the area, according to Boston police. The first homicide in Boston in 2010 was the Jan. 1 shooting death of a 25-year-old man on Geneva Avenue.

No more than a half-mile at its longest point, tract 918 had 3,547 residents living in 990 households, according to the 2000 Census. Nearly 1 in 4 lived below the poverty line, and 39 percent of households were headed by a single mother.

By some measures, conditions have worsened since the last decennial count. The subprime mortgage crisis hit 918 hard; it has one of the highest densities of foreclosed and abandoned homes in the city, according to officials, and some empty buildings still have the Census Bureau mailing lying on their stoops.

Minorities constituted more than 85 percent of the population, as of 2000. And for many, language remains a barrier. Tract 918 has a growing Cape Verdean community, many of whom do not speak English well. Portuguese Creole is commonly heard on the streets, the local barbershop, and ethnic markets, while the census form is in English.

Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin, whose office assists in the census effort, said many low-turnout communities have a common denominator: new immigrants. In Methuen, a significant Turkish population has led to a drop in responses; Malden’s low turnout is partly attributed to a growing Chinese and Vietnamese community; and Everett has showed a weakening of numbers because of a swelling population of Brazilians, he said.

“Language is a fundamental issue,’’ Galvin said. “We are going to redouble our effort to count all these people.’’

To address language and cultural barriers, the Census Bureau hired staff members from each community who speak the languages of their neighbors. In tract 918, Cape Verdean, Vietnamese, and Caribbean residents have been hired as part of the on-the-ground push. Staff members are trained to talk to residents about the importance of the census and reassure people about its confidentiality.

Galvin also said there is a strong correlation between a neighborhood’s crime levels and census participation. He believes many residents are too preoccupied with their safety to think about answering government paperwork. He had hoped to work with city officials to provide more security for 918 and similar neighborhoods, for the comfort of both census workers and residents.

“I have a hard time believing some of these people are going to open the door unless they feel safe,’’ Galvin said.

Instead the Census Bureau is trying other methods to encourage the reluctant to feel comfortable by hiring local residents and sending them out in pairs in more dangerous areas. To increase public awareness, the city is taping a new public service announcement with members of the Boston Red Sox that will air on the team’s cable channel.

“We’re going to work every angle to make sure folks are hearing us,’’ said Ramon Soto, the city of Boston’s liaison to the census.

Jenifer B. McKim can be reached at