The 2010 CensusWith the 2010 Census looming, tens of millions of residents in mostly dense urban areas such as Los Angeles and New York City are at high risk of being missed due to language problems and a deepening economic crisis, government officials say. The challenges are creating consternation in some cities, which say time and state budgets for outreach are short.

“While the census is a federal responsibility, there must be earlier and ongoing communication and accountability to local governments and communities,” says Stacey Cumberbatch, census coordinator for New York City.
Testifying before a House panel, officials with the Census Bureau and Government Accountability Office cited high-risk groups of hard-to-find immigrants, non-English-speaking residents and displaced homeowners who make up roughly 14 percent of the U.S. population.

To ensure an accurate count, census officials say they are devoting $250 million from $1 billion in stimulus money for outreach that will include stepped-up canvassing of addresses to identify residences with multiple dwellers and homes now abandoned due to mortgage foreclosures. The money will also be used to boost the bureau’s advertising budget by $80 million, of which $26 million would target the fast-growing Asian and Hispanic populations in television, radio and online spots.

Another $10 million would be spent on the undercounted Black community. The money will flow mostly toward dense coastal cities that traditionally have been more racially diverse. But places such as Iowa, with its rapid growth of Hispanics, or Maine, with its sizable Somali population, will also see additional outreach, the bureau says.

“A year from now, the populace will have seen and heard more ads in national and local media than in any prior census,” says Thomas Mesenbourg, the acting census director. Other efforts planned include partnerships with thousands of nonprofit groups and companies like Wal-Mart Inc. and Target Corp.; coordination with schools to promote awareness among students, particularly those with non-English-speaking parents; blogs, text messaging and YouTube videos; and rapid response and contingency funds for areas with unexpectedly low rates of residents mailing in forms.

The stakes are high, since census results are used to allocate some $300 billion in government funds for schools, roads, hospitals and other vital programs. States also risk losing political clout, since the population count determines apportionment of House seats and Electoral College votes.

Allocation of funds for vital programs and services and awareness of their political and economic clout are key reasons why Caribbean nationals are pushing to be included in the census as a separate category, instead of being lumped mainly with African- and Asian Americans. Organizers of CaribID2010 say Caribbean communities in the United States are underserved because they are undercounted or not counted at all. Census figures of 800,000 to 1.5 million are “fictitious,” they contend.

The census has long disproportionately missed minorities. In 2000, the bureau noted for the first time an overcount of 1.3 million people, due mostly to duplicate counts of whites with multiple residences. About 4.5 million people were missed, mostly Blacks and Hispanics. New York City faces challenges with a resident population that is more than one-third foreign born, including those of Middle Eastern descent, skittish given stepped-up law enforcement after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The state is projected to lose either one or two House seats.

Cumberbatch notes that New York City’s response rate in 2000 to the mail-in questionnaire was 55 percent lower than the national average of 66 percent. “What is the process to determine ethnic media buys in local markets?” she asked in testimony to a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee. “The Census Bureau needs to adopt a more formal process of convening diverse local stakeholders together.”

Robert Goldenkoff, director of strategic issues at the GAO, says many businesses that donated significant resources in 2000 for promotion may have less money to donate, while schools enlisted to promote the census may be financially burdened without additional investments.   

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