Counting on the Census | The Nation


Counting on the Census

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Research support for this article was provided by The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.

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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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Even though Julia DeLeon has lived in Houston for more than half her life, built a business here, raised two daughters and is now helping to rear a toddler grandson, she doesn't exist—not statistically at least. DeLeon first moved to Houston in the 1980s. When she got sick while pregnant and an emergency room attendant refused to admit her because she's not a documented resident, she retreated to Guatemala. But DeLeon couldn't stay away. Her sister had lived here and was certain the town held opportunity. So she returned with her newborn, settled in at a friend's apartment in Southwest and started rebuilding her life.

If either the 1990 or 2000 Census crossed her mind amid all of this, she doesn't remember it. She wouldn't likely have participated, anyway. After all, she didn't even have a valid lease, let alone a valid visa. Standing up to be counted by federal officials wasn't high on her to-do list.

"I just make a little part in the corner where they grew up," DeLeon recalls of the apartment where she raised Evelyn DeLeon, now 21, and Sharon Garcia, 16. "I just try to find a way in the school, any program so they not just stuck in the house. Like, making the Girl Scouts, art classes, in the church—some kind of organization where they can go, and it's not costing me much and they learn something."

Now, having painstakingly built a successful house-cleaning business, DeLeon sits in her own living room and listens proudly as her daughters talk about the importance of finally "being counted" in the 2010 census. "I do it," she shrugs. "Ten years back, I was maybe afraid if they deport us—what happen with these two girls? But now, if something happen with me, it's not really a worry," she says, turning to Evelyn, who's been volunteering in an ad hoc campaign to encourage Census participation in the neighborhood. "She can support now."

That seemingly blasé statement represents a huge victory for the Census Bureau. The DeLeon family—working-class, urban people of color—is just the sort of household the bureau has struggled to count for decades. Census statisticians discovered in 1940 that they were undercounting blacks by as much as double-digit percentages. Decade after decade, as the overall count grew more accurate, a racial gap in undercounting held firm. When the bureau began measuring across all races and ethnicities in 1990, it found blacks, Latinos and Native Americans were all undercounted at more than double the national rate.

As a result, the nation's largest metro areas have also been consistently shorted in the decennial Census. The bureau keeps a list of characteristics that make it tough to enumerate a given tract: lots of renters, low household incomes, new immigrant communities, single-parent families and large populations of people of color, among others. The list informs a ranking of "hard-to-count areas" that's essentially a big-city roll call—Los Angeles County, Brooklyn, Chicago's Cook County and Houston's Harris County fill the top four spots this year.

As of late April, a familiar pattern was emerging with the 2010 Census. Just over 70 percent of the 134 million mailed questionnaires had been returned. Small, largely white counties in the Plains and Midwest were registering response rates of 80 percent and up. Barely half of DeLeon's neighborhood had responded, as was the case throughout Southwest Houston's densely Latino neighborhoods; Brooklyn was at just about half, Chicago at 60 percent. In May, Census workers will start knocking on doors of homes that haven't replied.

The consequences of undercounting stretch far past mapping Congressional districts. Decennial Census numbers are used to plan things ranging from city council seats to airports and to divvy up hundreds of billions of dollars in federal support for state and local initiatives every year. In 2000 Census monitors analyzed how the undercount that year would affect funding for just eight federal programs. New York City was predicted to lose a collective $847 million. Harris County looked to miss out on roughly $240 million. This loss is amplified by the fact that undercounted communities are often those most in need of government programs—Medicaid, Head Start and special education, for example—whose funds are determined by Census data.

Planners fear that this year the collapsed economy will complicate things further still. Unemployment rates among blacks and Latinos are as much as a third higher than the national average. Communities with high foreclosure and job-loss rates are more likely to have families in unstable, temporary housing. It's a statistical negative feedback loop in the making.

In the past decade Washington has spent $14 billion, more than twice the cost of the 2000 Census, to avoid such bleak math. Over the past year, the Census Bureau has joined local governments and community groups to mobilize hundreds of thousands of neighborhood opinion-shapers to persuade families like the DeLeons to participate. It is by far the nation's most ambitious attempt ever to enumerate itself.

But the challenges the Census faces are both greater and more complex than the mechanics of a head count. Families like the DeLeons—young and brown-skinned migrants—are driving rapid demographic changes in the United States. Many of these new residents are uncertain about whether government is a source of support or a threat—the long arm behind immigration raids, detentions and record-high deportations. The answer becomes less clear as the right stokes an increasingly polarized debate over immigration. The tea party's smears of the government as an intrusive, untrustworthy force are often vocalized simultaneously with the charge that government sold out "real Americans" in favor of "illegal" menaces. In October, Louisiana Senator David Vitter tried adding a question about immigration status on the stripped-down 2010 Census form. He hoped to spark a fight about whether undocumented residents should be enumerated at all. The Congressional Research Service countered that the Constitution clearly dictates that the Census count "persons" living in the United States, not citizens. But the question Vitter sought to force is one the modern Census—with its mandate of rendering a national portrait in hard, tangible numbers—cannot avoid: Who does and does not count?


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