Immigrants' Reluctance, Worker Displacement Complicate Census

By Ed O'Keefe and Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Amid fears that millions of people may be overlooked during next year's census, the Census Bureau will launch a $250 million promotional campaign to encourage participation in the decennial head count, especially among hard-to-reach minority groups in urban areas.

More than half those funds will go for advertising across traditional and social media, and nearly a quarter will be devoted exclusively to Asian, black and Hispanic outlets.

"A year from now, the populace will have seen and heard more ads in national and local media than in any prior census," the Census Bureau's acting director, Thomas L. Mesenbourg, told a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee.

The agency will also hire 2,000 temporary employees by the end of June to coordinate efforts with more than 10,000 local organizations and corporations to help encourage greater participation. Companies including General Mills and Target and civil rights groups including the NAACP will encourage their customers and members to fill out census forms next year.

All of this is necessary to help boost participation levels among the nation's undercounted groups, mostly ethnic minorities in economically depressed areas. How the bureau decides to advertise could prove crucial to next year's count, said Stacey Cumberbach, New York City's census coordinator.

"While the census is a federal responsibility, there must be earlier and ongoing communication and accountability to local governments and communities," she said at yesterday's hearing, noting that 55 percent of New York residents responded to the 2000 census questionnaires, compared with 66 percent nationally.

But any attempt at coordination with local governments may be adversely affected by their tight budgets, according to Robert Goldenkoff of the Government Accountability Office. He also noted that the bureau could encounter many people who refuse to answer questions because of their general distrust of government or fear of revealing their immigration status.

At a forum last week sponsored by the Brookings Institution, census officials and other experts also warned that increases in foreclosure and joblessness would make it harder to accurately count the population during the 2010 census because more Americans are moving out of their homes and into shelters or other locations where they may be more difficult for census workers to find.

Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said minority populations are more likely to be affected because they are being hit harder by job losses and foreclosures. "Another undercount of the Latino community, of which there has been in every single census, simply represents a failed census," Vargas said.

Research done by the Census Bureau shows that many Hispanics "believe answers can be used against them," according to Frank A. Vitrano, a division chief at the bureau who oversees planning and coordination for the 2010 count. Hispanics also tend to be overrepresented among groups that know little or nothing about the census and its purposes, he said.

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