Some local leaders question accuracy of census data

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 25, 2001

Last summer, Adams County Supervisor Virginia Salmon sat on her front porch sharing lemonade with a frustrated U.S. Census worker. The census taker was having a hard time finding some households that had not filled out their census forms – and a harder time getting a response once she’d knocked on the door.

So Salmon, whose board had already encouraged people several times to fill out their forms, offered to urge residents again not to leave the forms blank.

Several months later, with Census numbers showing a 1,016 drop in population in Adams County, Salmon is not surprised if people wonder whether the county’s population was undercounted.

&uot;I don’t know that we’re down a thousand people,&uot; she said.

That said, she also wasn’t surprised that census figures showed a decrease – and she doesn’t think it is cause for panic.

&uot;I’m not shocked; I expected some decrease,&uot; Salmon said. &uot;But I’m not running around with my arms in the air. In county government, we’re making every effort to bring in industry and business. That’s not changed with me. I was concerned about it five years ago when I took office, and I was concerned about it 10 years ago when my husband was in office. We have to keep going.&uot;

Natchez Alderwoman Sue Stedman is taking the accuracy of the census figures with a large grain of salt. &uot;I’m very concerned that we were undercounted,&uot; she said, noting that some surrounding counties had increased in population. &uot;That just doesn’t make sense to me.&uot;

Stedman, who is also a Realtor, questions the numbers because of the amount of real estate in the county.

Here is her reasoning: In 1990, the average number of persons in a household was 2.64.

&uot;Let’s just say you take 1,000 divided by 4,&uot; Stedman said, choosing a conservative number for the number of persons in a household now. &uot;There should be 250 vacant houses somewhere. I’m in the real estate business, and those houses are just not there. If that 2.64 figure (for persons per household) has not changed by a great deal, you’ve got 330 vacant houses.&uot;

Stedman admits that Natchez – particularly downtown Natchez – has many absentee owners, who might spend part of the year here but claim another city as their primary residence.

Still, she is concerned that not all of Adams County’s residents are represented in the census numbers.

Larry Smith is curious as well. Smith, who works for Central Mississippi Planning and Development District, wrote Natchez’s Comprehensive Plan and is working on one for Adams County.

The comprehensive plans give the city and county an outline of potential progress for the next 20 years. In plotting the city’s future, Smith determined that by 2000, Adams County would have just more than 43,000 people.

Smith based those figures on the trends represented in census figures for employment by place of work. Those figures, compiled through 1998, have shown the number of jobs in manufacturing, construction, retail trade and services to be growing over the past 10 years.

&uot;Either there’s an undercount, which some people might suspect – and sometimes I believe they’re right – or employment has not grown as we predicted,&uot; Smith said.

With two of Natchez’s largest employers – Titan Tire and International Paper’s mill – in a state of uncertainty, that might not seem surprising. But the census forms were filled out last year, before layoffs at Titan and before IP’s mill was put up for sale.

Adams County’s recorded population has always seemed low to Smith, he said.

&uot;I’m surprised that it did not grow to 40,000,&uot; he said. &uot;That would have been a minimal growth.&uot;

Stedman isn’t sure what recourse the city would have to challenge the census numbers, or whether it would be worth it to try.

The difference in population in the county – 1,016 – &uot;isn’t really a lot, but it concerns me,&uot; she said.