Stand Up and Be Counted

Published in the Spring 2010 issue of SSA Magazine

Community groups and public officials have strategies to ensure that the 2010 Census doesn't shortchange any neighborhoods

The U.S. Census determines how many Representatives in Congress each state has and drives formulas that allocate some $400 billion in federal funds each decade—for every person not counted, a community loses about $12,000. In cities like Chicago, the 2010 Census faces new challenges in historically undercounted areas, from new pockets of the poor in the suburbs to public housing residents who have been widely dispersed by the Chicago Housing Authority's Plan for Transformation

"A lot of changes to Chicago over the last 10 years lead to the worry that we won't get a complete count," says Scott W. Allard, associate professor at SSA, who coordinated an all-day event, "Understanding a Dynamic Decade: Population Trends, Public Policy and the 2010 Census in Chicago," at SSA in February. "Immigrant groups have lower response rates, and the transformation of public housing will make it more difficult to canvas areas of the city."

For the conference panels, Allard invited a mix of researchers and representatives from public and nonprofit groups that are using new outreach strategies this year. The United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations, for example, is working in six Chicago neighborhood areas with 2000 Census response rates of 39 percent to 56 percent, targeting hard-to reach populations like African-American males, the formerly incarcerated and recently arrived immigrants.

The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) is one of many groups that are getting out the word via local residents who know the language and want to ensure their own communities count. ICIRR has hired 14 "fellows" to knock on 5,000 doors in areas with low 2000 Census response rates. In addition, they've partnered with trusted ethnic media sources to promote the benefits and assure residents that information is confidential. "This [2010 Census] is just one piece of a larger puzzle in empowering immigrant communities," says Flavia Jimenez, program director of ICIRR's New Americans Initiative.

The two groups are among 26 organizations working with the Illinois Census Funders Initiative, a collaboration of foundations focusing on areas with low past return rates, and at least three strong community partners with which they could work. "Our theory was that if you 'flood the zone,' you will get results," says Alice Cottingham, project manager for the initiative.

The strategy has the blessing of the Census Bureau, which changed its own hiring procedures in 2010, according to Stanley D. Moore, executive director of the U.S. Census Bureau, Chicago regional office. "We're hiring indigenous people who live in that block and that [Census] tract," he says. "We're finding people who speak the right language and aren't afraid to work in that community."

About 11.5 million bilingual Census forms have been sent out in Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Russian and Spanish, says Nancy A. Potok, deputy undersecretary for economic affairs in the U.S. Department of Commerce, where the Census is housed. "Even though the Census is national, it's very local in its implementation," Potok said.

The Bureau's work, which includes the annual American Community Survey, informs academic research of all stripes. Alan Berube, senior fellow and research director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, talked at the conference about how he will use the ACS for an upcoming report on population trends. Research already shows the U.S. has greater economic inequality than in nearly a century, he pointed out, and the "suburbanization of poverty" is challenging assumptions about where to locate social welfare programs.

Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here, reminded conference attendees of how the Census is a step toward reporting on the lives and issues of the people represented. "The Census hopefully collects information without creating a single narrative," said Kotlowitz. "Once one gets down on the ground, people come to life. I'm not suggesting that numbers don't matter. As a storyteller, I rely on numbers as a compass. I'm suggesting they tell only part of the story."

Allard agrees. "The conversation is sometimes going to be about data sets, but the topics are going to be about families," he says. "SSA's mission is to promote social justice, strengthen community organizations and neighborhoods, and create opportunities for families and children. The Census is important to all of that."

— Ed Finkel