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Counting on the Census | The Nation

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Counting on the Census

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DeLeon's neighborhood sits inside a stretch of districts in Southwest Houston that feature prominently on Wallace's map. The area's hub is Gulfton, a small, tightly packed neighborhood dominated by a handful of massive apartment complexes. The area was developed in the 1960s as a convenient suburb for young, upwardly mobile white families. A deep recession in the 1980s pushed those families out, leaving affordable housing stock for new Central American immigrants. By the 2000 Census, the neighborhood had grown by 40 percent while white residents in the broader area had fallen by half. The city estimates that three-quarters of Gulfton's residents are Latino.

About the Author

Kai Wright
Kai Wright
Kai Wright is features editor of The Nation. His reporting and writing has focused on racial justice, economic inequity...

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All these characteristics—the dense housing complexes, the new migrants, the mixed languages—give Gulfton and the surrounding area a sky-high score on the hard-to-count matrix. Wallace's office believes it's one of the city's most undercounted neighborhoods.

Enrique Sapon, a church-group leader in Gulfton's Guatemalan community, is sitting in Benito Juarez's office in Gulfton's new city-funded community center. Juarez, a community liaison in the mayor's immigrant affairs office, spends his days finding neighborhood surrogates like Sapon to pull in residents for all manner of services, from prenatal health to English classes. But all conversations lead back to one place.

"We are planning for immigration reform, and to inform and raise the consciousness of the people," Sapon says when asked about the Census. For many in the neighborhood, the word "government" only triggers fears about immigration policy. "Because people don't want any more raids and families being separated because they are deported." The only question to be answered about the Census is how participating will impact the path to citizenship.

Residents' answers vary widely but are most often rooted in suspicion. Sapon is not terribly moved by the promises that Census information is confidential. "It's the same thing they were saying about the Social Security and the hospitals," he says, before citing neighborhood lore about people being deported out of hospital beds. "There have been cases." Another rumor in Southwest is that the effort to get everyone counted is a ploy to set up a mass deportation sweep. Others fear that showing how many immigrants are truly here will fan public animosity toward them. "Anyway, if they don't fill out the form, somebody is going to come knock on the door," Sapon says of his neighbors, "so they are just praying that nothing happens."

"People really have a lot of fear," Juarez explains. "They go to work, and they do normal everything, but when it comes to getting in contact with government agencies? That's a no-no." He says when the center opened, it took six months to persuade people to walk through the door. Today, an estimated 6,000 people pass through every week.

By the time the center opened in 2007, it had been on the city's wish list for more than a decade. Juarez says that's in part because Census data have never adequately reflected the population that locals know to be wedged into the tiny space. Houston's city-run community centers are funded in part by federal Community Development Block Grants, and those are allocated based on a formula that includes Census data. So, for that matter, are many of the social services offered at the center.

The Brookings Institution estimates that Census data guided nearly $3 billion in federal grants made to Harris County in the 2008 fiscal year and $420 billion in federal grants nationally. Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program, highway construction, special education, Head Start, home-heating assistance, senior housing—funding for all these things is based on Census data.

Wallace and others stress that nobody really knows how much the city's undercount affects specific programs, because the formulas for allocating money are complex. But from service providers to elected officials, people trying to tackle community needs day to day say they consistently bump against bad data.

"A hospital wants to relocate, they look at numbers," says Harris County commissioner Sylvia Garcia, who also heads the National Association of Latino Elected Officials. "A bank wants to open up a branch, they look at numbers. A foundation wants to make their donations, they look at numbers. And one of the very basic tools of any of that kind of research is Census."

Garcia is still frustrated, for example, by a recent flap with the city schools. When officials closed a school in a historic building in her district, they at first agreed to open an early-childhood education center in its place. But they consulted Census data that said there weren't enough kids under 6, so they shelved the project. "I just said, 'OK, the crying room of the church is always full. How can you tell us there's not enough kids?' And we didn't believe it, but they showed us." Garcia bought the building herself and is raising funds to open a center like the one she envisioned.

 

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