If you live in a big city, particularly in a neighborhood full of people of color, you’ve likely been bombarded with Census advertising in recent weeks. Here’s why: Washington has spent a record $14 billion over the past decade in an effort to finally accurately count urban areas. So far, the results are mixed.
As of today, a familiar pattern had emerged. Small, white-dominated counties in the Plains and the Midwest were leading the way in share of households that had mailed in their Census questionnaires. Green township, Ohio, leads the nation with a 72 percent response rate. Sioux Falls city, S.D., is at 66 percent. Meanwhile, just a third of Brooklynites have replied; 26 percent in my neighborhood (really, y’all?). Cook County, which overlaps with Chicago, and Los Angeles County are both doing better at roughly 50 percent. The Census Bureau has a fun interactive map here, where you can check out response rates and drill all the way down to the neighborhood-level.
Next month Census workers will start going door-to-door to follow up. That’s when we’ll really find out how much progress the bureau has made in fixing the chronic urban undercount. A Pew Hispanic Center survey suggests that the massive public awareness push from groups like the National Association of Latino Elected Officials and Leadership Conference on Civil Rights has at least shaped public opinion on participation. A remarkable 91 percent of foreign-born Latinos Pew surveyed last month said they planned to participate in the Census.
The challenge is multi-layered. There’s the obvious fact that many people in Black and immigrant neighborhoods have rightfully distrustful relationships with officialdom. Certainly, with deportations at record highs, any household with undocumented family members isn’t going to be eager to fill out a questionnaire for the federal government. But there’s also hard logistics: Dense urban areas are dynamic places, in which both the housing stock and residents are constantly in motion. A housing-based population count is challenging. The recession doesn’t help, as more and more people struggle to hold onto stable housing.
The stakes are high, though, and not just for national politics. Census data informs hundreds of billions of dollars in federal spending. A presidential review board following the 2000 Census predicted New York City’s undercount would cost it $847 million. States draw local electoral districts with Census data. Cities figure out the number and distribution of City Council seats. Schools, community centers, bus lines – all this stuff’s impacted by Census data. And, frankly, it’s about something deeper: Who we are as a nation. The 2010 Census, if everyone gets counted, will no doubt reflect a dramatically different future for America – a nation that’s browner and more urban than ever. I’ll have an in-depth look at the Census and the effort to get it right later this month, so more to come on all of this.
Cross-posted at RaceWire.