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Everyone Counts
Monday, 01 March 2010 16:42

26_census3The 2010 Census Is Here

Like a cheerleader, every page of the U.S. Census 2010 website exhorts the American masses, "It's in our hands." In one sense, "it" is the questionnaire residents nationwide receive from the bureau to be filled out and returned so that the resulting data yields an accurate - and useful - portrait of the United States. "It" can also be seen as the future: Participate in the census, and you and your community, city, or state may benefit politically and financially. A lot of power and money is at stake.

The U.S. Constitution mandates a count every 10 years of every person living in the United States - all ages, races, ethnic groups, citizens and non-citizens alike, regardless of legal status, one by one. The population statistics are used to allocate seats in the U.S. House of Representatives - a process based on the population of every state - and to draw boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts. The data affect the yearly distribution of $400 billion in federal funds to state and local governments for infrastructure, re-development, new hospitals and schools, and social services. Twenty major federal programs rely, in part, on census data to apportion funds to states and communities. The Brookings Institute estimates that every person counted is worth $1,700 per year. In addition, thousands of companies, civic agencies and non-profit organizations use this valuable population information when making corporate and public policy decisions.


The 2000 Census was the first time in 30 years that Massachusetts did not lose a representative. But this time around, Massachusetts Secretary of State William F. Galvin, the state's liaison with the bureau for the 2010 Census, has said, "I don't know if I can pull a rabbit out of the hat again." New York State lost two seats in 2000, going from 31 to 29 representatives. Using Census Bureau estimates released December 2009, Election Data Services, a political consulting company that analyzes census and political data, projects that both Massachusetts and New York State will lose single seats once 2010 tallies are in.


Ever-changing demographics
The problem is that southern and western states are growing faster than the northeastern states. Secretary Galvin says Massachusetts is making "as determined an effort as possible" to get a thorough and accurate count. He acknowledges that the state's extraordinarily diverse population makes the upcoming count very challenging.


A wide swath of people and organizations across Massachusetts - politicians, community organizers, social workers, public agencies and nonprofit organizations - worry about losing their share of the pie. But state leaders maintain that Massachusetts population numbers are still strong, fueled by immigrants, the state's fastest growing segment, which now comprises 14 percent of the state's inhabitants.


In July 2008, Bureau estimates put Boston's population at 620,000, up from 589,000 in 2000. Based on the bureau's July 2008 estimates, there are more than 8.36 million people living in New York City, a four percent increase over the 2000 Census. In a public service video posted on the city of Boston's website, Mayor Thomas Menino challenges his constituents to be counted in 2010, "to help ensure that Boston receives its fair share of funding, congressional representation and accurate data that will benefit us for the next ten years."


According to UMass Amherst sociologist C.N. Le, the 2000 Census results showed that the U.S. population was becoming increasingly non-white, with Latino and Asian numbers growing the most. "I expect to see a continuation of that trend with the 2010 Census," Le said. The Census Bureau predicts that by 2046, whites will no longer be a majority. They'll still be the largest racial group by far, but non-whites will comprise more than 50 percent of the national population. Massachusetts is following this general pattern."


26_census2A Herculean task
The decennial census count gets underway in March, when the Census Bureau mails or delivers questionnaires to households across the country with the requirement that residents fill and return them in postage-paid envelopes by April 1, which is National Census Day. The forms do not ask about immigration status; answers are strictly confidential; and the bureau cannot share the information with any other agencies. Between April and July, Census workers will follow up with visits to households that did not respond. By law, the U.S. Census Bureau delivers population counts for apportionment to President Obama by December 2010. In March 2011, the Bureau delivers, by law, redistricting data to the states.

The U.S. population now tops 305 million, an increase of more than 20 million since 2000. Charting a population increasingly more diverse and mobile, the bureau inevitably undercounts thousands of people. Several key factors affect the undercounting of communities: hard-to-count groups, such as low income neighborhoods, immigrants and people living in rental units, dormitories, or nontraditional households; language barriers; misperceptions that census information can be shared with other agencies; unfamiliarity with how the census affects political representation and federal funding; privacy concerns; and distrust of government.


Census 2010 faces another major obstacle: Some Latino leaders are urging undocumented immigrants to boycott the census as a way to protest the lack of immigration reform. Other immigrant leaders oppose this tactic because undercounting can drain dollars, political representation, and influence from Latino communities.


"While I understand their frustration," said Giovana Negretti, founding director of Oiste?, a Boston-based Latino civic education and advocacy organization, "the boycott is the wrong strategy. The census is one of the best tools Latinos have to improve their quality of life."


"If Massachusetts's immigrants are undercounted, there might be less funding for social services that directly benefit their communities," Le said. "Further, they won't receive the kind of attention their growing numbers warrant."

Building the trust, raising the numbers

The Bureau has ramped up its push to encourage participation in this year's census. At $340 million (vs. $100- $150 million for the 2000 Census, the first with an ad budget), the bureau's advertising strategy represents the most extensive and diverse outreach campaign in U.S. history. With print and TV ads appearing in 28 languages, much of the campaign targets various ethnic audiences. Since one in five U.S. residents speaks a language other than English at home, the Census Bureau is distributing instruction guides and sample forms in dozens of languages in places such as community centers, barbershops, and supermarkets, and offering online information and over-the-phone help in 59 languages.

Another big difference from a decade ago is that the campaign is running in media outlets that did not exist in 2000, including Facebook, Flickr, MySpace, Twitter and YouTube, plus a blog by census director Robert Groves.


Making it easier for residents to respond, the Bureau will use a streamlined questionnaire - the shortest in history, touting it as "10 questions in 10 minutes." For the first time, the Census will distribute census forms in English and Spanish to about 13.5 million households in neighborhoods with high concentrations of Spanish-speaking residents. The bureau has also dropped its "long form," which since 1930 collected socioeconomic and housing data on every sixth household.



In addition, the Bureau has partnered with more than 150,000 businesses, nonprofits and community groups, such as churches and ethnic organizations, nationwide to build trust in its message that filling out the form is important, safe, and easy. With its Census in the Schools program, the Bureau has also involved K-12 teachers and students.


To help communities prepare for the 2010 Census, the bureau compiled a database that ranks the hardest-to-count areas. According to the Boston-based Metropolitan Area Planning Council, among the 651 tracts that make up one percent of the hardest-to-count tracks, 19 are located in Massachusetts.


Counting the hard-to-count
In recent years, the state and Boston have tallied hard-to-count residents living in dormitories, prisons, and nursing homes. In 2008, the Boston Redevelopment Authority worked with the Census Bureau to identify every site in the city that should receive a 2010 Census form. With the student population in Massachusetts approaching 350,000 - "our cash crop," as Secretary Galvin calls them, the state worked closely with colleges and universities to inform their students, especially out-of-staters, that the census is a count of who is actually here on Census Day.


More determined than ever, Massachusetts and Boston are devoting ample funds and energy to reach immigrants and other hard-to-count groups. In the 2000 Census, 69 percent of Massachusetts residents returned the census form, slightly above the national rate of 67 percent, but lower than large states such as California, Colorado, and Virginia. In cities with large immigrant populations, such as Lawrence and Boston, the response was lower. Federal officials hope to increase Boston's return rate from 57 percent in 2000 to 70 percent in 2010.


Municipalities throughout the state have formed Complete Count Committees - public officials, community leaders, volunteers - to maximize participation in their communities. "The bureau is doing the right thing," Negretti said, "partnering with communities and working at the grass roots level to foster trust. People respond to people they know, from the agencies in their neighborhood to the church down the street. At their doors, they will believe people they know."

New York State, expecting a count of more than 19.5 million, is also going all out.

Proclaiming "You are New York. Make yourself count," the state's census website has posters, brochures, and post cards for downloading. New York awarded $2 million to nonprofit groups and local governments for community and media outreach. With the nation's highest percentage of hard-to-count residents, New York City is orchestrating several aggressive outreach programs, including an information campaign targeting public housing residents.


A by-the-numbers national portrait
"I am confident that the 2010 Census will result in robust, useful data for academics like myself," Professor Le said, "as well as for companies, organizations, and the general public. I hope that people will see the value of the census and that participation is an important civic duty for all Americans."

The census counts - so that we have a true portrait of our country and vivid pictures of our communities. As Mayor Menino says in his online video, "Your task is simple - fill it out and send it back. But the implications are enormous. Let's use this opportunity to show that everyone counts."


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