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Being counted in the 2010 Census

Sampan.org, News report, Samuel Tsoi Posted: Feb 20, 2010

The census is a monumental task mandated by the US Constitution: “counting everyone wherever they may be.” But how does a nation as vast and diverse as America go about counting 300 million people? By deploying an army of people and large sums of money in a collaborative media and outreach effort.

This decade’s census is, in fact, is one of the largest undertakings by the federal government. It will involve 1.5 million ‘enumerators’ (temporary employees hired by the Census) and 7,500 complete count committees to collect the data. 150,000 grassroots organizations are also involved in overcoming issues of mistrust, confusion, and apathy.

“[The 2010 Census] will be largest, most visible, and expensive advertising campaign,” said Paul Watanabe, UMass Boston political science professor and director of the Institute for Asian American Studies. “It will outspend McDonald’s [in advertising]…and it’ll also be the most diverse concerted campaign in the history of US – involving 28 languages and 10,000 media outlets,” he added.

The Census Bureau will spend evenly $340 million in paid advertising between national and local and between mainstream and ethnic community. It aims to be both loud and wide, placing ads in various media outlets, from the Super Bowl to local community bulletin boards, to Facebook. Bilingual posters have also sprinkled across Chinatown businesses and community organizations across the city.

Advertising itself relies heavily on census data, which also contributes to how businesses make decisions about location and investment, where governments invest in infrastructure and schools, and how health, educational and social agencies identify patterns and disparities.

But since the first census was taken in 1790, counting United States’ booming population accurately has become more difficult each decade. This time, demographics have also shifted dramatically in terms of diversity and mobility, and some have become harder to count.

Across the nation, there are also challenges such as counting the homeless, the incarcerated, and reaching folks from homes that are vacant due to foreclosures and natural calamities. And although the Census Bureau is an independent, highly methodical, and nonpartisan entity, the reason, method, and the use of the information is often controversial and highly political.

In states such as New York, for example, seven of its districts are holding state senate seats otherwise impossible without prisoner populations. The phenomenon in these rural districts has lead to undeniable incentives for lawmakers representing them to firm up the prison-industrial complex.

Meanwhile, Louisiana is at risk of losing federal representation because of the high number of homes left vacant in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

In Massachusetts, the last census had a disappointing response rate of 69% statewide, 57% in Boston, and as low as 55% and 55% in Chelsea and Lawrence, respectively. The state comprised about ten percent of the nation’s population during the first census, and represents roughly two percent today due to an influx of migration to the South and Southwest – resulting in a possible decrease in federal funding (as much as $3,000 per person per year) and at least one seat in congress.

On the local level, census data will determine how much money communities receive for schools, ESOL and workforce training programs, senior centers, and student loans.

The stakes are high, accuracy is vital, and this year’s survey is decidedly simple: “10 questions in 10 minutes,” the shortest form in history.

The questionnaire will be mailed out in March, and will collect data on age, gender and race of each inhabitant in a household unit. Those who do fail to return the form via mail will be visited by census-takers who are often from the locality in which they conduct the door-to-door surveys.

In a response to the rapid population growth via immigration, there are 59 language-assistance materials in print, via phone, and the website. Forms in six languages including Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese will also be available by request.

Watanabe, who recently hosted a forum to help Boston-area media and community partners “make sense of the census,” was selected by Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke to serve on the committee on the Asian population.

The professor stressed that he is not a government official, but is both a vocal advocate in the public and valuable advisor to the Census Bureau in making sure all previously undercounted populations, especially ethnic minorities and immigrants, are counted accurately in 2010.

“The idea of reaching out as hard as possible to hard-to-count populations is not shared by everyone.” Watanabe said, pointing to the rise of anti-immigrant sentiments as the country becomes evermore diverse.

Efforts at the local level, especially those in large immigrant communities such as Lowell, Brockton, and Chinatown have stressed the benefits of being counted and reinforced the safety from threats such as deportation.

Many fears are not unfounded. A bill was introduced to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives to include citizenship and immigration status in the form, even as the 2010 materials have already been disseminated. It was eventually defeated, but not overwhelmingly.

As a Japanese American, Watanabe also recounted the shameful chapter in U.S. history when the government overreached its power and abused census information in the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

“This will be the first post-9/11 census, and there’s all kinds of accompaniment in terms of whether the government is trusted and whether the government can trust certain populations,” Watanabe added.

In light of those serious concerns, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that census information must remain confidential. The Federal Justice Department has also assured the Census Bureau that the Patriot Act could not be used to force the surrender of any census information.

Given the heightened sensitivity to privacy, there is still a significant racial disparity in mail-response rates, including immigrants with limited English skills, African Americans and other minority groups, the poor, the less educated, and those who live in crowded housing.

Watanabe encourages community partners to see those language and cultural barriers as ways to actually utilize them to increase the response rate.”

Reaching out to young students is one such example. “I frankly think Census in the schools are more important and broad – reaching school age kids is an absolutely critical factor given the cultural and language realities faced by many of the hard-to-reach households,” Watanabe said.

He considers strategic outreach in youth centers and schools are very meaningful, in reality, hard-to-count populations are often language-isolated, and children serve as primary language-brokers and are opening mail and interpreting official government documents. “Reaching those individuals is an effective way to reach the adult who are formally given the responsibility to fill out the forms,” he said.

Trusted leaders like Ruth Moy of the Chinese Golden Age Center are also called to get the message out via their networks, and train others within the community to host informational meetings. Identifying such individuals who are culturally and linguistically competent is another important strategy by the Census Bureau.

At a critical juncture when states try to narrow fiscal deficits and communities strive to be counted, the decennial headcount is set to become a major determinant of fiscal and democratic health.

While the media blitz has begun, and census takers prepare to knock on doors, community activists and elected officials are holding their breath. As one census slogan aptly states, “It’s in your hands. We can’t move forward until you mail it back.”

Samuel Tsoi is a Sampan correspondent.

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