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Census Face Challenge in Rural U.S.

April 18, 2000

SIERRA BLANCA, Texas (AP) _ Nineteen miles north of this tiny West Texas town, past endless fields of tall yellow grass and desert shrubs, is the beginning of a hilly dirt road.

From there, it’s eight miles down the bumpy path, beyond the signs that read ``No trespassing″ and ``Keep out _ Private property,″ before you reach Jim Walker’s trailer.

It is the task of Census Bureau workers to find Walker and thousands of other Americans who live way out in the country.

Census-takers must go door-to-door in rural areas because the agency has a rule against mailing census forms to post office or rural route boxes.

Walker, 80, doubts the headcounters will be able to find everyone. The census-takers are dropping by known homes and driving around, looking for other residences, only until May 1 but will make follow-up visits through early July.

Out here, ``it’s pretty hard to get around,″ said Walker, who has raised cattle for the last 25 years on the Gunsight Ranch in Hudspeth County, estimated population 3,200. A census worker called to tell Walker to expect a visit, but five days after the appointment, no one had shown up.

Some politicians fear that many rural Americans will go uncounted.

Val Beard, the county judge, or top elected official, in Brewster County _ the largest county in Texas and home to Big Bend National Park _ believes the count would be higher if the Census Bureau would mail forms to people with P.O. boxes.

Beard contends that census-takers driving around will never be able to locate everyone in sparsely populated yet vast counties such as hers, which is bigger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.

``We think it’s a horrible mistake for all of rural America,″ she said. ``It’s going to cut out a lot of people.″

Beard points out that some people have locked gates several miles from their homes, that some may not be home when census-takers arrive and that a good number would be more likely to respond by mail than to open the door to a stranger.

One census-taker working in Brewster County faced yet another obstacle: A pet javelina _ a type of wild hog _ sprang out from under a porch and attacked her. The woman had gashes on both legs and needed 20 stitches.

Community leaders say an exact count is vital because the census is used to determine how to distribute billions of federal dollars for schools, housing, health care and other programs.

Census Bureau spokesman Frank Newton dismissed Beard’s concerns.

``It’s not correct to say we’re going to be missing people out in rural, remote areas,″ said Newton, spokesman for the district that includes Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. ``From our perspective, we’re doing even more to make sure those people are counted.″

Census officials say they cannot mail forms to P.O. boxes because each person has to be linked to a specific residence. They also say that some people have more than one P.O. box and that they want census-takers out searching for people who don’t get mail.

Census officials have tried to recruit people to go door-to-door in their own communities, since residents of remote areas not only know where all of the houses are but won’t be considered strangers when they approach.

``We will go up to a cardboard shack,″ said George Bell, manager of field operations at the agency’s El Paso office.

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On the Net: Census Bureau: http://www.census.gov

County information: http://www.uscounties.com

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