America vs. the Census

The country's 2010 effort to enumerate itself was more ambitious than ever--and may have been more consequential. But it's complicated by the question it begs: Who does and doesn't count?

By Kai Wright May 10, 2010

May 10, 2010

Research support for this article was provided by The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. Read the full story at The Nation.

Even though Julia DeLeon has lived in Houston for more than half her life, built a business here, raised two daughters and is now helping to rear a toddler grandson, she doesn’t exist–not statistically at least. DeLeon first moved to Houston in the 1980s. When she got sick while pregnant and an emergency room attendant refused to admit her because she’s not a documented resident, she retreated to Guatemala. But DeLeon couldn’t stay away. Her sister had lived here and was certain the town held opportunity. So she returned with her newborn, settled in at a friend’s apartment in Southwest and started rebuilding her life.

If either the 1990 or 2000 Census crossed her mind amid all of this, she doesn’t remember it. She wouldn’t likely have participated, anyway. After all, she didn’t even have a valid lease, let alone a valid visa. Standing up to be counted by federal officials wasn’t high on her to-do list.

"I just make a little part in the corner where they grew up," DeLeon recalls of the apartment where she raised Evelyn DeLeon, now 21, and Sharon Garcia, 16. "I just try to find a way in the school, any program so they not just stuck in the house. Like, making the Girl Scouts, art classes, in the church–some kind of organization where they can go, and it’s not costing me much and they learn something."

Now, having painstakingly built a successful house-cleaning business, DeLeon sits in her own living room and listens proudly as her daughters talk about the importance of finally "being counted" in the 2010 census. "I do it," she shrugs. "Ten years back, I was maybe afraid if they deport us–what happen with these two girls? But now, if something happen with me, it’s not really a worry," she says, turning to Evelyn, who’s been volunteering in an ad hoc campaign to encourage Census participation in the neighborhood. "She can support now."

That seemingly blasé statement represents a huge victory for the Census Bureau. The DeLeon family–working-class, urban people of color–is just the sort of household the bureau has struggled to count for decades. Census statisticians discovered in 1940 that they were undercounting blacks by as much as double-digit percentages. Decade after decade, as the overall count grew more accurate, a racial gap in undercounting held firm. When the bureau began measuring across all races and ethnicities in 1990, it found blacks, Latinos and Native Americans were all undercounted at more than double the national rate.

As a result, the nation’s largest metro areas have also been consistently shorted in the decennial Census. The bureau keeps a list of characteristics that make it tough to enumerate a given tract: lots of renters, low household incomes, new immigrant communities, single-parent families and large populations of people of color, among others. The list informs a ranking of "hard-to-count areas" that’s essentially a big-city roll call–Los Angeles County, Brooklyn, Chicago’s Cook County and Houston’s Harris County fill the top four spots this year.

As of late April, a familiar pattern was emerging with the 2010 Census. Just over 70 percent of the 134 million mailed questionnaires had been returned. Small, largely white counties in the Plains and Midwest were registering response rates of 80 percent and up. Barely half of DeLeon’s neighborhood had responded, as was the case throughout Southwest Houston’s densely Latino neighborhoods; Brooklyn was at just about half, Chicago at 60 percent. In May, Census workers will start knocking on doors of homes that haven’t replied.