Numbers game

By Michelle Chen Apr 03, 2009

Counting people is harder than it looks. The 2010 census is morphing from a sociological project into a political one: conservatives are crowing about the dangers of tallying “illegals,” and activists are seeking policy changes to guard against undercounting. Immigrant advocates are leveraging the threat of an undercount to press for immigration reforms, warning that aggressive crackdowns drive undocumented immigrants further underground. An estimated 3 percent of the Latino population was undercounted in the 2000 census. The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, League of United Latin American Citizens, SEIU and other groups have partnered to launched a Spanish-language outreach campaign, ¡HAGASE CONTAR! NALEO argues:

The census is taken largely through the U.S. postal system, and factors such as unlisted addresses, households with large families and high mobility rates contribute to persons being missed. The recession and large number of foreclosures in the Latino community will make enumerating this population even more difficult in 2010.

President Obama’s appointment of Dr. Robert Groves, a renowned survey expert, as head of the Census Bureau, along with $250 million devoted for outreach to “hard to count” groups, is a sign that 2010’s numbers should offer a clearer picture of the country’s demographic pastiche. Aside from the undercounting of Latinos, various other groups may be not find an appropriate box to check off. Dominican Americans, who have for years been pushing for more flexible categorization of ethnicity and nationality, since their self-identity often doesn’t fit neatly into the standard Black, white, and Hispanic labels. Federal law has blocked the Census Bureau from fully recognizing same-sex married couples, and same-sex couples with adopted children won’t be recognized as two-parent families. And folks who are just plain poor are likely to be missed, too: families living in motels, cars or on the streets are vulnerable to being ignored by census workers as the economic crisis leaves more people without a stable address. So conservatives are naturally reluctant about accurately counting such historically disenfranchised and invisible groups–perhaps fearing what they might find. But the politicization of the census is only useful if it leads to truer political representation of who is living, working, and putting down roots in this country. To that end, communities will hopefully apply the better data a lot more often than once a decade. Image: City of Carmel, Indiana