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"Race, Poverty & The Year 2000 Census,"

by Julia Burgess July/August 1998 issue of Poverty & Race

In less than two years we will all receive the Year 2000 Census form. Some of us will mail it back right away. Some will put it with their bills and return it in due time. And there are those who, for a variety of reasons, will not respond at all: they'll forget; they're not in the habit of using the mail; they'll throw it out because they've not had positive experience with government. Distrust of government "intrusion" is growing among many portions of the population, but historically this mainly affects newcomers, low-income people and people of color. Given the increasing budget cuts that have disproportionately affected the poor, stricter immigration laws, redistricting challenges that are eroding the political gains of people of color, and the attacks on affirmative action, it is especially important that the undercount of these populations he reversed. An accurate count is critical to all of these issues.

According to the Census Bureau, the 1990 Census had the highest differential undercount in the nation's history. It is estimated that 5% of Hispanics and 4.6% of African Americans were missed, but only 0.7% of non-Hispanic whites. Twelve percent of American Indians living on reservations were not counted. Children accounted for 52% of the undercount. Renters were disproportionately undercounted: for example, only 0.03% of homeowners in rural areas were undercounted, compared with 5.9% of rural renters. (See the La Cooperativa "Advocacy Update" on p. II regarding the undercount of migrant and seasonal farmworkers.)

Reversing this differential will not be easy. Some of the largest demographic shifts in US history have been taking place over the last decade, which will make it more difficult to find people. These shifts affect redistricting and targeted federal and state funding. Some are obvious, such as the increase in the homeless population. Some have been less obvious. For example:

· The underuse and demolition of public housing is causing large movement within African-American communities. As people leave public housing, there has been little or no effort to track where people have gone.

· Today, nearly one in ten residents was born outside the US. The tightening of immigration rules in tandem with welfare reform is causing fear of exposure among undocumented Latin American and Asian immigrants.

· The unprecedented growth in incarceration rates is increasing, especially for minority males. This increases the minority population in rural areas, where most prisons are located, and decreases the urban minority population. However, their population count is really needed in their home localities.

How can low-income people and people of color be reached and encouraged to fill out their Census forms? The best way is with the support and active involvement of grassroots community organizations. These entities are most aware of who lives in their neighborhoods and are the most trusted
by residents. However, these organizations can be enlisted only if they feel it is in their and their constituency's self-interest to respond.

Why It's Important

· The US Constitution calls for the Census to be carried out every ten years specifically for the purpose of re-apportionment of the House of Representatives. This is to ensure that each state is fairly represented by population. The data are also used for this purpose within states and cities, depending on their methods of representation. The drawing of new legislative district boundaries is thus a function of changes in the Census. After the Census 2000 it is anticipated that dramatic population shifts, such as noted above, will cause significant changes in many district boundaries and in the number of representatives at all levels of government. With so many of the advances in promoting economic and racial equality being challenged and taken away, it is very important that low-income people and people of color are fully counted so that there can be fair representation of their interests.

· Most federal and state dollars are re-distributed to states and localities by formula grants. These formulas are based on overall population count and, depending on the purpose of the grant, by other factors, such as income level, number of children, etc. Areas lose millions of dollars when they are undercounted. For example, Chicago estimates it lost nearly $600 million in federal revenue between 1990 and 1996 because of its undercount.

· Employers locate in areas and market their goods with an eye to population data. Many have found and many more can be persuaded that it is to their benefit to have a workforce representative of where they are located and whom they want to reach. Census data provide this information and can be used to communicate effectively with employers in how jobs are created, trained for and filled. Factual knowledge of workforce needs in the next century can encourage employers to actively develop new ways to encourage inclusion and integration in higher education.

Census Operations

Community groups can serve as a bridge between government and residents in the recruitment, training and supervision of enumerators. Due to difficult working conditions and the short duration of the task, the Census Bureau must recruit about 3 million people in order to keep 270,000 people working during the Census-taking period. To reach people in historically undercounted areas, people who live there will be the most effective enumerators. Community groups can help in this recruitment. In the 1990 Census the greatest breakdown in reaching people was in the training and supervision of enumerators. It is hoped that the Bureau will sub-contract with community organizations to carry this out.

The specific activities community groups can engage in to broaden out-reach are many. Personalizing the need to participate is probably the most effective communication strategy: "If you fill out the form and return it, this will benefit you directly - for example, X extra dollars for your school."

The Census Bureau itself will be doing significant outreach and has been developing "partners" with whom it hopes to mount outreach activities. Private foundations are being solicited to fund outreach programs. Coalitions will be developed by the Center for Community Change in at least three sites around the country that will engage grassroots community groups in activities to encourage participation in Census 2000. Such coalitions should be multi-racial and multi-ethnic so that bridges can be built between communities of color. This is especially necessary in areas where low-income African Americans feel there is competition from new immigrants for jobs and social services.

Promoting the Value of the Census

A constituency of community groups can be developed that will increase awareness of available Census data regarding population characteristics: housing, type of employment, education, income, etc. Health indicators, crime statistics, mortgage lending are just a few of the areas important to residents, especially when linked to Census data. This information is critical for planning purposes and is especially useful to communities when cross-tabulated by race, ethnic back-ground and location. Information is power: the more organizations are able to understand and use available information, the more effective they can be in providing needed services and in organizing and advocating on behalf of their constituencies.

We must identify which interventions and combinations of interventions are most effective in reducing the undercount in low-income communities and communities of color. The stakes are too high to not involve as many organizations as possible in this work.

Julia Burgess is Eastern Regional Director of the Center for Community Change (1000 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Wash., DC 20007, 202/342-594), where she leads the Center’s team of technical assistance specialists who work with community organizations and coalitions in low-income areas. She directs the Center’s Census 2000 project.

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