U.S. Census Reaches Out to Ethnic Media To Avoid Undercounting Of Minorities

Census regional director Kathleen Ludgate at a talk with New England ethnic reporters.

Census regional director Kathleen Ludgate at a talk with New England ethnic reporters.

The 2010 U.S. Census gets underway one year from now. Amid concerns over an undercount of immigrants and ethnic minorities, census officials recently met with ethnic media journalists from New England to address fears and suspicions that may discourage people from participating in the census survey.

According to the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights there are three main reasons why the 2010 census will be especially challenging:

  • The rise of anti-immigrant rhetoric, and heightened immigrant enforcement activities, have created real fear and distrust of the government;
  • The foreclosure crisis and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have displaced millions of people, making it hard to do an accurate count; and
  • As the first census after 9/11, the Census Bureau will have to deal with Americans’ privacy concerns about how their information is used.

The journalists attending the meeting in Boston represented TV, radio, Internet and newspaper media for African American, Brazilian, Cape Verdean, Chinese, Polish and Spanish communities. Census regional director Kathleen Ludgate told them that the census needs to create media buzz where it matters, in the communities.

“The idea here is to have ethnic journalists tell us the talking points that interest their own readers,” she said.

Addressing the fear that some undocumented residents have about answering the census, Ludgate said “whether it’s the Patriot Act or anything else that’s happened over this decade, the Census Bureau has a good track record of maintaining confidentiality.”

Some immigrants workers have told ethnic newspapers and radio programs that they fear personal information could be used against them if it is revealed to local authorities — even if the information turns out to be inaccurate.

“We don’t share information with the city or anyone else. The only purpose for the data we collect is for the census,” assured Ludgate, whose Region I office oversees all six states of New England, upstate New York, and Puerto Rico.

Census media specialist Cesar Monzon explained, all employees of the census sign an oath of confidentiality, which is renewed annually. Anyone who reveals specific information about any household would be subject to up to five years in prison, plus a $250,000 fine.

In addition, federal laws require that specific data about residents be concealed for 72 years before it can be made accessible to the general public.

Census 2000 vs. 2010, Jobs at the Census

For the first time ever the 2010 census will feature a bilingual questionnaire, in English and Spanish. The Spanish-language census will be mailed to households in targeted areas that have high concentrations of Spanish-speaking residents, such as the cities of Lawrence and Chelsea in Massachusetts, New Haven, Connecticut, and Central Falls, Rhode Island.

In 2000, one in six households received a long-form version of the census, which contained 53 questions spread over 40 pages. In 2010, all households will receive a simple 10-question form. Besides Spanish, the census questionnaire will be available in Chinese, Korean, Russian and Vietnamese.

The census’s Boston office is recruiting 80 facilitators to engage immigrants and minorities to fill out the questionnaire and participate with census staff.

“The Asian community is very participative, and they are aware of the importance of the census to their own communities,” said Angela H. Mah, a census partnership specialist for Asian communities.

Alexandra Barker, a media specialist who works with Brazilian communities, highlighted that the census is in full hiring mode.

“We have positions available for secretary, partnership specialist, a media specialist, and census takers,” she said.

To be eligible to work for the census, candidates must be at least 18 years old and U.S. citizens. Barker referred prospective candidates to 2010censusjobs.gov.

Power, Money and Getting Counted

With minorities undercounted in past census years, New England officials have said that some ethnic communities did not get services that they needed – because the data collected did not adequately represent the ethnic diversity of some cities.

The allocation of federal dollars is based on census population numbers – so if members of an ethnic community are not counted, then the funds allocated will be lower for the undercounted community and the services and programs that target it.

Census information helps determine (click for a fact sheet in .pdf) the location of schools, roads, hospitals, childcare facilities, senior citizen centers, and more.

“Every time I try to get state funding for a program for the Brazilian population, I get the same response: ‘We don’t have many Brazilians, the majority of immigrants here are Hispanic,’” said Germano Martins, from New Hampshire’s Department of Health and Human Services.

While director Ludgate acknowledged that census data “comes down to power, money, and information,” the classification of race and ethnicity was a major source of debate during the UMass press conference, too.

“It seems confusing, because [the census] ask[s] residents to respond ‘no’ if they are not Hispanics or Latinos. Brazilians are not Hispanics but they are Latinos,” said Elizabeth Simoes, a reporter for the Brazilian Times newspaper.

Simoes was referring to question 8 of Census 2010, which asks if the respondent is of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin. Question 9 asks respondents to identify their race among a list of choices, of which one is “some other race.”

Marcela Garcia, editor of El Planeta newspaper, asked Ludgate about another important aspect of the census: its key role in political power and elected representation. The census determines how many seats each state will have in the U.S. House of Representatives as well as the boundaries of legislative districts.

In 2007, studies conducted by POLIDATA and Election Data Services showed that the Massachusetts’ population was projected to rise 2 percent during the current decade, far lower than the national average of more than 10 percent. The Bay State would be the only New England state likely to forfeit a seat in the US House of Representatives after the 2010 census.

“You can certainly address that concern to engage your readership,” said Ludgate.

Census Comes Knocking

The census is a national survey required by the U.S. Constitution to take place every 10 years. The federal government awards more than $3 trillion to help the states count their populations.

One year before the actual data is collected, census staff are already holding neighborhood meetings to talk about redistricting, which determines the number of state representatives and senators each voting district gets.

The census will start mailing questionnaires to homes by March of 2010.

In April 2010, census employees will start canvassing neighborhoods for follow-up. In Massachusetts, canvassing will start in the Eastern region, and then move to the Western part of the state.

From April to July of 2010, census takers will visit households that did not return their questionnaires by mail.