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"Improving Census 2000 Enumeration of Farmworkers,"

by Edward Kissam July/August 2000 issue of Poverty & Race

Efforts to improve the “mega-undercount” of migrant and seasonal farmworkers (MSFW’s) in the decennial Census, funded by PRRAC in the early 1990’s, have made important changes in the strategies the Census Bureau used to enumerate this hard-to-count population in Census 2000. But ongoing efforts will be needed to assure that future data series from the Bureau — the Current Population Survey and, ultimately, the American Community Survey — reflect the true profile of the United States farmworker population and other undercounted groups living in poverty and substandard housing conditions.

Throughout 1998 and early 1999, Ilene Jacobs of California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), who serves as Co-chair of the Partnership and Outreach Sub-committee of the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Census 2000, worked vigorously with the Census Bureau to assure that the Bureau would develop effective partnerships with grassroots organizations and that the Bureau’s media campaign and outreach activities would really connect with marginal populations such as farmworkers. Jacobs was also vigorously involved in deliberations on the design of the questionnaire sections on race/ethnicity, in pro-active efforts to assure that enumerators would be hired from undercounted communities and that Census Bureau planning reflected the “on the ground” realities of life in minority communities. A particularly important victory was the Bureau’s decision to allow legal permanent residents to compete on an equal footing with citizens for decennial Census jobs (a critical factor in building trust, understanding the Census and effective follow-up to non-respondents in immigrant communities).

After more than five years of attention at the national level to the structural problems with Census enumeration of farmworkers, in 1999 CRLA and sister organization La Cooperativa turned their attention to California – a region where almost half of the nation’s farmworkers live and work. These efforts included three strands of activity. The first focused on improving the Census Bureau’s Master Address File (which is based on “official” lists and tends to omit substandard, “low-visibility” housing where farmworkers live); the second on assuring that questionnaire assistance centers operated by grassroots community organizations would be able to help low-literate, limited-English respondents complete the English-only Census forms they received in the mail; and the third on mobilizing grassroots organizations to promote Census participation among farmworkers and other rural undercounted groups.

Through CRLA’s efforts, working in conjunction with groups such as the National Farmworker Service Center, somewhere on the order of 10,000 “low-visibility” housing units, where probably more than 50,000 farmworkers reside, were identified and referred to the Census Bureau to be added to the Master Address file. This effort was critical because, in contrast to the “official” view of Census undercount as a reflection of poor people’s indifference to the Census, the project’s perspective (based on research throughout the 80’s and 90’s) was that Census omission resulted primarily from entire households being left out of the sampling frame.

CRLA and La Cooperativa’s efforts also included development of a “white paper” putting forward the rationale of appropriating state funding to support local government and community-based organizations in working with the Census Bureau to promote Census participation and provide help to families in low-income communities, particularly immigrant areas with high proportions of limited-English residents. Working with Chinese for Affirmative Action, MALDEF and others in an informal “California Complete Count Coalition,” this joint effort eventually resulted in state funding of $25 million to support these partnership efforts. Working closely with the Irvine Foundation’s Civic Culture program and the Central Valley Partnership, a network of grassroots organizations it funds, an additional $100,000 was made available to support the farmworker outreach efforts of grassroots groups in this 17-county farmworker region.

CRLA’s operational efforts to overcome the farmworker undercount, supported from November 1999 onward by The California Endowment, took a huge step forward by recognizing the growing ethnic diversity of the farmworker population, and concentrating on assuring that indigenous Latino populations would be enumerated and correctly identified ethnically — as Mixtecs, Zapotecs, Trique, Purepecha, Otomi or other indigenous groups. At the same time, CRLA has recognized that, despite its intensive efforts, there still remain serious problems with Census procedures; thus, the effort has included community-based research on the extent of Census undercount in twelve farmworker communities throughout the state. The results of this research and recommendations for operational improvements will be published in late 2000.

Despite advocacy by CRLA and La Cooperativa, there still are serious limitations to the decennial Census methodology and implementation as a means to accurately enumerate and profile the farmworker population. Although CRLA met regularly with Census Bureau Regional Directors and their staff to solve operational problems, provide detailed guidance on enumerating informal, overcrowded labor camps as “special places-migrant workers,” and deal with other glitches in implementation, standard procedures remain ill-suited to enumerating this mobile population.

Nonetheless, it is very likely that there has been significant improvement in the proportion of migrant and seasonal farmworkers identified in Census 2000 — since the 1990 undercount of this group was probably over 50%. Assuming that formula-funded social programs that rely on Census data generate funding directly proportional to service population size, the CRLA/La Cooperativa pro-active efforts have probably resulted in potential benefits of more than $30 million per year to this very poor population. A final assessment of how well the advocacy efforts worked will only be possible in 2001 when the STF-3A and PUMS data products are released.

An important lesson learned from CRLA’s and La Cooperativa’s efforts on Census undercount over more than a decade is that successful advocacy does not lead smoothly to effective collaboration in federal-state-local efforts as complex as the decennial Census. Partnerships between federal agencies such as the Census Bureau and local community organizations will not work effectively if the model is one of top-down planning and information flow. Although the project began its advocacy efforts in the early 1990’s, federal and state responses were slow in recognizing what they could learn from their local community-based partners and, as a result, implementation was often not well coordinated.

Edward Kissam is Senior Research Associate at Aguirre International/The Aguirre Group, 480 E. 4th Ave., #A, San Mateo, CA 94401, 650/373-4924, 510/482-9979.

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