Making Sense of the Census

Crystal Bozek | January 15, 2010
The discussion was led by Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies.

The discussion was led by Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies.

It’s the informal mandate of the U.S. Census: “Count everyone wherever they may be.”

That may sound straightforward enough, but the reality is that several communities are undercounted because of language and cultural barriers, according to Associate Professor of Political Science Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies.

Watanabe, also a member of the U.S. Census Race and Ethnicity Advisory Committee, led a discussion in the Campus Center on Wednesday, “Making Sense of the Census: Challenges Facing Hard to Count Communities in 2010,” focusing on the difficulties of reaching hard-to-count communities.

The census workers, UMass Boston professors, researchers, and community activists in attendance agreed that to reach populations like Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, African Americans, and Hispanics, there needs to be partnerships with community groups that these people trust, and census workers they can identify with.

“The higher percentage of a population that is foreign-born, the more difficult to count,” Watanabe said. “The community partnerships, the community organizations, those will be the best mechanism to increase the hard to count population’s mail returns.”

The event was organized by UMass Boston’s Institute for Asian American Studies, and cosponsored by Mauricio Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy, and the William Monroe Trotter Institute for the Study of Black Culture.

Gastón Institute director María Idalí Torres said UMass Boston was the ideal place to hold discussions like these.

“I think UMass Boston is a natural partner for the census because of the institutes we have connected to our community groups,” Torres said. “It’s wonderful that we have provided opportunities for the community to come and learn how they can make an impact.”

With the addition of the Institute for New England Native American Studies last spring, UMass Boston became one of just two universities in the country – the other being the University of California at Los Angeles – to house four ethnic institutes and centers.

The U.S. Census is taken every 10 years, and aims to provide a count of every person living in the United States. Census forms will be mailed out to households in March and are due back in April. Then, census workers will be sent out to try to count people who did not fill out forms. Ultimately, Census data will be released in December.

“It’s ten questions, ten minutes. That’s how it’s being described,” Watanabe said.

Census return rates have drastically decreased over recent decades: While 87 percent of the population returned the forms in 1970, by 2000 the number had dropped to 74.1 percent. Disparities between race and ethnicity is also widening: In 2000, 77.5 percent of the white population returned censuses, while the percentage dropped to 54.6 percent for Pacific Islanders.

Watanabe said the government will spend billions of dollars, hire 1.5 million census enumerators and 4,000 partnership specialists and assistants, and partner with 7,500 complete count committees and 150,000 community organizations. The government will also spend $340 million on advertising, including television commercials during the Golden Globes, Winter Olympics, and Super Bowl.

But several attendees felt that community outreach, not TV commercials, are the key to higher census return rates for hard to count communities. One barrier is language: Census forms are sent out in English for most people and in Spanish to a select number of targeted communities, and while they are also available in seven other languages, people must request them first. Also, there is a reluctance on the part of some people to trust the government, believing that the Census form asks about immigration status (it does not) or that their information will be shared with other branches of government, which the Census bureau is legally prevented from doing.

But despite those fears, it’s important for people to be counted, Watanabe said. The Census count affects everything from congressional apportionment and redistricting to the distribution of federal dollars. The numbers also provide invaluable information to various agencies, about where services are needed.

Melissa Colon, associate director of the Gastón Institute who worked with the U.S. Census in the early 1990s, said a big problem is not only language, but also literacy. Even when Census literature is translated, sometimes people still have trouble with it, she said.

“The challenges to reaching the hard-to-count communities are very deep,” she said. “It’s good to come together and discuss these things.”

Census work is available

Census recruiters will be on hand at UMass Boston during registration week to give students, faculty, staff, and the general public an opportunity to apply to work for the Census and take a test to determine if they’re qualified. Testing will take place at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Monday, February 1, through Thursday, February 4, on the 11th floor of the Healey Library. Anyone interested should call 617.848.3260 to register for a test session, which takes 30 minutes. Click here to view and download the application.

Tags: gaston , iaas , trotter

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