U.S. Census begins, officials work to quell fears

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The U.S. Census is using advertisements urging all people to be counted.

By Adrián Castañeda

Federal Census forms are being mailed out today, March 15. It’s a massive government effort to count everyone who lives in the United States that comes every 10 years, and it’s being matched by an equally strong effort by nonprofit groups to ensure that even marginalized residents get counted.

In a country that once counted slaves as 3/5 a person and did not count Native Americans at all, it appears that the 2010 census will come the closest to counting all people living in the U.S. Millions of dollars are being spent to inform people of the importance, and the function, of responding to the decennial census – and saving the feds from spending further millions on door-to-door enumerating. 

Among other things, the population count is used to determine the apportionment of public funds to various communities and of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Despite all the immigrant-bashing by right-wingers who claim to revere the U.S. Constitution, that guiding document requires that all persons, not just citizens, be counted. It is for this reason that special care is being taken to include the historically undercounted communities such as low-income families, non-English speakers, and immigrants both undocumented and documented.

For Alex Darr, office manager of the San Francisco census office that covers all of the Mission and Bayview districts, the task is difficult but familiar. A veteran of the 2000 census, when some estimates say as many as 100,000 San Francsicans were not counted, Darr says the census has evolved in both form and execution. 

What used to be a multi-page document with as many as 52 questions per person has now been whittled down to just 10. “Ten questions in ten minutes, we like to say around here,” says Darr. The questions are of the most basic sort, requesting the age, sex and race of every member of a household. It does not ask about citizenship. Even more reassuring to immigrants, 2010 is the first census that will be available en Español. Spanish language forms will be arriving in the Mission, but that and the laws that require participation may not be enough to encourage people to respond.

 The U.S. Census Bureau is actively recruiting bilingual speakers to work in the Mission and educate residents of the importance of the census for things like social services and infrastructure. Employing residents of the area, Darr says, will reassure people that responding to the census is not a risk when census-takers begin knocking on doors in late May because, “it’s easier to hear this from your neighbor.”

A document released by the census bureau estimates that for each percentage point of the population that does not return its census form by the April 14th deadline, the government will spend $80-90 million sending out census-takers to visit homes. Darr says that his office’s efforts will, “save [residents] some trouble, save the government some money as well.” San Francisco’s census-takers, with a starting salary of $22 per hour, will be among the highest paid in the country.

In addition to the boost in recruitment, Darr’s office has teamed up with a variety of community organizations to form the Mission Complete Count Committee and build on the existing relationships with residents. Rosario Anaya of the Mission Language and Vocational School (MLDS) says students at the center are being urged to pass on information about the census to their families and the building is being used as a training center for census workers. Anaya says the response has been good but there is hesitation. Some residents have told her, “We get counted but there’s no services coming back to us.”

Joel Aguiar of the SF Day Laborer program says his group trained day laborers and domestic workers to go out and engage their friends in discussion about the census. “When they think of the census, they’re not going to think of somebody knocking on their door,” Aguiar says of their program. Many of the workers are worried that by responding to the census, they would put their housing at risk by inadvertently revealing to the landlord or housing authorities how many live in their crowded homes.

But Aguiar says the laborers found that, “really a lot of their fears are unfounded.” Many of the community groups in the Mission will also be hosting Questionnaire Assistance Centers starting March 19th, with multilingual staffs to help anyone who needs help filling out forms. Information on individual QAC sites and much more on the census will be printed in El Tecolote’s late March issue.

MLDS is one of several groups who participated in conjunction with the city and the SF Recreation and Parks Department in a community soccer tournament over the weekend at Garfield Park. The tournament featured both adult and children’s teams representing the various social justice groups as well as a team fielded by the census bureau. Aguiar says the soccer games strengthened the census education effort by “associating it with something which is already a community event.”

The Mission is also home to a number of single room occupancy hotels, or SROs, that are another community that was vastly undercounted by the last census. “Many SROs don’t have buzzers, have absent managers, or have managers who will not let us in,” says Kendra Froshman of the Mission SRO Collaborative. In response, the Mission SRO has joined a citywide coalition formed by the Community Housing Partnership to push for legislation that would change SRO visitor policies to allow census workers to enter.

The Mission is not the only area on Darr’s agenda. While citizenship is not a major issue in Bayview-Hunter’s Point, investigation into the low mail-back rate after the 2000 census found that many residents did not return their forms simply because they did not have a mailbox on their street. It remains unclear if mailbox distribution is one of the many things the government uses census data to calculate, but for the 2010 census, the Postal Service and the Housing Authority have set up various locations in the neighborhood where people can drop off their completed forms to be mailed.

“We are starting at a new beginning point for people to understand the importance of being counted,” Bayview Census representative Omar Khalif says of the outreach effort he has been working on since last July. Khalif attributes the low return rate to misinformation, saying many of the people in the area are hesitant to divulge personal information to the government despite being on government assistance and living in government housing.

As part of the effort, many different groups, such as the SF Housing Development Corporation, have come together to form the Bayview Complete Count Committee and host a series of community events such as a Gospel feast on March 28, giving residents a chance to win prizes for turning in their forms early. Flyers posted in community centers urge residents that being counted could mean thousands of government dollars in funding for their neighborhood. Working with all the established groups has given the census office better access to an often-disenfranchised community, Khalif says: “This is something that benefits us as a whole.”

The first census since the 9/11 attacks and the federal government crackdown that followed has many has many people understandably worried about giving too much personal information to the government. Census data is used by a variety of government agencies as well as private entities for everything from allocating federal funds to academic research and even advertising.

Many undocumented people fear that participating in the Census will tip off ICE agents. However, personal census information, including names, is strictly confidential even to other agencies within the government. "If the president asked me for your census form, I can say 'No, you can't get it,'" U.S. Census Bureau Director, Robert Groves recently told a crowd of immigrants in a Texas bordertown.

The long form of the 2000 census asked a variety of questions including employment, living expenses, and citizenship. These questions are now found on the American Community Survey (ACS), which is sent out every year to a small percentage of homes and gives the Department of Commerce more up to date and in depth data on how Americans live. Yet fears on both sides of the issue persist.

Some Latino advocacy groups such as the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders (CONLAMIC) have launched a campaign urging Latinos to boycott the census until Congress passes comprehensive immigration reform. “Before you count us you must legalize us,” proclaims the president and founder of CONLAMIC, Rev. Miguel Angel Rivera, on his website. Similarly, several conservative politicians have spoken out about counting non-citizens, as it will shift Congressional power and federal money to areas with high populations of immigrants.

Conservative U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachman (R-Minnesota) briefly called for a boycott of the census, saying on air that the survey is intrusive but does not ask the right questions. “This would be your perfect opportunity to find out how many illegal aliens are in [the] United States,” she suggested. She also cited the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II as a misuse of Census data. Census Bureau officials have stated that the USA Patriot Act does not override the explicit, legally mandated confidentiality of the census. Government assurances do little to quell public fears, but it is possible that the boots on the ground work done by census takers and their partners in the various community groups around the city will make the 23rd census a success.

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