Recession Adds To Hurdles Facing U.S. Census

A year from now, the U.S. will conduct its decennial population count. The findings are used to re-apportion congressional districts, disburse federal funding — even decide where new traffic lights go. But the economic crisis threatens to make this daunting task even harder. There is special concern about minority groups, which are traditionally hard to count.

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Next year, the United States will conduct its once-a-decade census. People will knock on millions of doors, ask questions and count. The results will be used to remake congressional districts, decide where federal money goes and even figure out where new traffic lights should be placed. Of course, counting more than 300 million people is hard and minorities have traditionally been undercounted. As NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports the economic crisis is likely to make that job harder.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Here's how much a census report can be thrown off. In 2000, not only were several million mainly Hispanic and black residents missed, but more than a million people were counted twice, mostly whites with multiple homes. At a recent congressional hearing it was pretty much a given that minorities will be missed again. Government officials talk simply of trying to minimize the undercount.

Terry Ao of the Asian American Justice Center says the recession has census planners scrambling. She says minorities have been disproportionately displaced with job losses and a housing crash.

Ms. TERRY AO (Asian American Justice Center): How do you capture folks who may be living out of their cars or living in motels? If there's a family living in a home that's fearful of foreclosures or repossession they also will not likely want to answer the door.

LUDDEN: Such problems come on top of several years of an immigration crackdown in which thousands of unlawful migrants who answered the door found themselves arrested by federal agents. The Census Bureau does not ask legal status, but it is constitutionally required to count all residents regardless.

Mr. DON BROWNE (President, Telemundo): Right now there is clearly an anti-immigration and in a lot of cases anti-Hispanic feeling in the country. And I think our biggest enemy is fear.

LUDDEN: Don Browne is president of Telemundo. Next week, the Spanish language TV network will launch a publicity campaign aimed at giving Latinos a positive view of the census.

Mr. BROWNE: In every one of our platforms we're going to have different messages from our talent. We're going to create themes within our novellas. I think you know our stock and trade.

LUDDEN: Your soap operas.

Mr. BROWNE: The soap operas exactly.

LUDDEN: So what kind of drama might there be over the census?

Mr. BROWNE: Basically a generational story about someone walking in and confronting their parents about, listen, this is important.

LUDDEN: Census Bureau focus groups have shown older immigrants may know nothing about the census. Those from countries with repressive regimes may harbor a profound distrust of a government bureaucrat wanting information. Census spokesman Raul Cisneros says the bureau's own publicity campaign will tell people the 2010 census is safe.

Mr. RAUL CISNEROS (Spokesman, Census Bureau): The information that we collect is strictly confidential. Every census employee takes a lifetime oath to protect the information that his collected.

LUDDEN: Cisneros says the bureau will also make an unprecedented effort to reach minorities in their own language. For the first time, 13 million bilingual questionnaires will be mailed to Spanish speaking household. Legions of bilingual census takers from various groups will follow up.

Mr. CISNEROS: It's very important for the people that we're going to hire to conduct the census to be from the community and to be known in their communities. So we want to develop the trust.

LUDDEN: But immigrant advocates have their complaints. They say the number of minorities has exploded in the past decade with migrants moving to new regions of the country. Yet the Census Bureau's budget for outreach hasn't kept pace. Money from the congressional stimulus bill will help. But Robert Goldenkoff of the Government Accountability Office, told lawmakers, the recession will hurt other efforts.

Mr. ROBERT GOLDENKOFF (Director, Strategic Issues): State and local governments as well as community organizations may not have the budget, staff or time to aggressively promote the census.

LUDDEN: With all these concerns and so much at stake, minority rights groups say time is running short. Canvassers will soon begin checking addresses. So questionnaires can be mailed next March and there is one more complication, the Obama administration has still not appointed a census director.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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