CENSUS WATCH: Census mulls how to fix undercount

By Erik Fowle, New America Media

Certain U.S. populations are historically undercounted by the census. The 2000 Census data show that in Los Angeles County alone, African American and Latino populations were undercounted by a margin of 2.85 percent and 2.6 percent, respectively. This may not seem like a lot, but when you consider that a U.C.L.A Center for Regional Policy Studies analysis alleges undercounts cost more than $26,000 per 1000 people not counted, it adds up.

This means that the $300 billion in federal funding allocated every year does not reach the areas and communities it needs to reach.

But why are these demographics underrepresented, census after census?

The Census Bureau and the many advocacy organizations agree on some reasons.

According to Evan Bacalao, deputy director of civic engagement at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), one of the primary reasons for this undercount is limited English proficiency. The Census Bureau acknowledges that this as a problem as well.

But what about actual members of these often poorer and ethnically diverse communities? What do they seem to think is the main barrier to achieving a strong count?

According to Sean Shavers, 18, of Oakland, the issue is not so much one of language but of fear or misinformation. "Door-to-door workers won't go to dangerous areas without the cops," for follow-up counts, Shavers muses. Essentially, "houses are skipped."

That, or people in these areas simply think "senses" when they hear "census," says Omar Turcios, 24, of San Francisco. "For some people, the 'census' is about smell and taste."

Angelo Falcón, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy, agrees that this fear of government is the main cause behind the lack of census participation. And even though census workers are bound to secrecy by their oath of nondisclosure, "with the PATRIOT Act and terrorism," Falcón says, "there are no guarantees."

Clearly there is a difference of opinion on census matters between government agencies, advocacy groups, and the populations they are trying to reach. Unfortunately, with a belief in different problems comes a belief in different solutions.

NALEO is trying to solve the problem of underrepresentation through their Ya Es Hora (It's time) campaign. Originally targeted to encourage Latinos to apply for citizenship and register to vote, the campaign has been extended to include promotion of the 2010 Census.

Ya Es Hora, according to Bacalao, is a "nationally coordinated effort developed to promote community assistance and provide information on the census." The campaign focuses especially on sending information about the census through trusted channels, such as local TV and radio stations.

The Census Bureau is launching bilingual census forms for the 2010 count, as well as literature in a multitude of languages.

Unfortunately, there are factors beyond even the reach of local media and bilingual distribution that can lead to a lack of census participation. Even if the census's message is advertised through television and radio, the form itself still arrives in the mail. And, according to Shavers, if the mail "doesn't have anything to do with welfare," it's not worth checking.

Rosalinda Anguiano, a Mexican American mother of two living in Redwood City, Calif., says Latino citizens might be more inclined to participate in the census after hearing about it through popular media such as telenovelas (Spanish-language soap operas). But if you're undocumented, she says, it doesn't matter how or where the census takers show up. Even though they are forbidden from sharing information with other government offices, she says the fear among undocumented residents is too great.

But what benefits do underrepresented communities stand to gain by participating in the Census?

The Census Bureau and groups such as NALEO seem to assume that the distribution of the $300 billion is obvious. It is a way, says Bacalao, to "assess the need for hospitals, new schools or community programs."

Turcios is not so sure. Even if participating in the census means more money coming to his community, he says, "People don't see the money. No one informs people how census money is being spent."

Bacalao acknowledges that "it is challenging to see directly the impact of census counts."

The problem is that the government, advocacy groups, and individuals in these communities understand the allocation of census money on completely different terms. In fact, Turcios and Shavers explain, the people in these underrepresented communities don't simply misunderstand the government; they fear the government. Or worse - they resent it.

"The census is federal. Immigration is federal. You know the information is going somewhere. My uncle isn't about to tell the government if he has 10 people living in his house," says Turcios.

Clearly, there needs to be a more concerted effort, beyond the scope of programs such as Ya Es Hora, and the multilingual literature distributed by the Census Bureau, to reach out to these communities. Just how to do this remains a question.

Falcón suggests the Census Bureau's method of promoting the census through warm, friendly PBS-style messages may not be the right way to approach these communities. Instead, Falcón and the National Institute for Latino Policy came up with their own campaign, independent of the Census Bureau and its message. Their campaign's catchphrase, roughly translated into English, means "Don't let them take you for a fool," referring to those who do not want Latino communities to be counted as part of the U.S. population. This sort of "counter programming," as Falcón calls it, approaches the community separately from the government. "It's an important tool," he says, "for reintroducing the Latino community to the community."

How do members of these undercounted communities feel they would be best motivated to participate?

Shavers offered a start. "Maybe an incentive for filling out the form," would help, he said, "even $3 would be fine."

Spending $3,000 instead of losing $26,000? Sounds like a deal.


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