Census Makes Early Pitch to Minority Communities

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The 2010 Census is months away from its official launch. But efforts are already underway to drum up participation, especially in minority communities. Arnold Jackson, Associate Director of the 2010 Census, explains why the early start is essential. And Lizette Olmos, from the League of United Latin American Citizens, discusses why Latinos and other minorities have been under counted in the past.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

While poets kick off a month to celebrate their art, the federal government is kicking off preparation for the 2010 census. National Census Day happens exactly one year from today. Now, that fact might not make your heart go aflutter, but the census, which is required by the Constitution to be conducted every decade, is used to decide how Congressional seats are distributed, to make decisions about what community services to provide and to distribute nearly $300 billion in federal funds to local, state, and tribal governments every year, and that means census data is at the heart of all manner of political fights.

Historically, black and Latino populations have been under-represented, in part because some members of these communities view the census with suspicion. That's an attitude that civic groups like the League of Latin American Citizens, better known as LULAC, are fighting to change with the help of public service announcements like this one.

(Soundbite of public service announcement)

Unidentified Man: Everybody has to come together, because this is the fundamentals of our democracy. Unless we have a complete census, we won't have full representation and we won't have the information we need to move this country forward.

MARTIN: Joining us to talk about the census and especially what it means for people of color it's Arnold Jackson. He is the associate director of the 2010 census. Also with us is Lizette Olmos. She is the national communications director for LULAC. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. LIZETTE OLMOS (National Communications Director, LULAC): Thank you.

Mr. ARNOLD JACKSON (Associate Director, 2010 Census): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Mr. Jackson, let me begin with you. When people ask you why this matters, what do you say?

Mr. JACKSON: Well, first, the census as the Constitution mandates, is the basis for political representation in our country. The second reason, of course, is distribution of resources. We estimate that over the next 10 years, roughly $3 trillion will be distributed based in one way or another on census data - the programs that fund schools, that fund transportation, that fund health care. So a lot of the infrastructure that keeps us going day to day is based on census data also.

MARTIN: Do you agree that minority populations have been historically under-represented? And why might that be?

Mr. JACKSON: It is an established fact that minority populations have been undercounted, even though the last census in 2000 did register an improvement. I think the reasons are many. There has been among many minority groups a history of hostile interactions with the government, both federal, state and local. There has been on the part of the Census Bureau until the last census probably not the most aggressive outreach and advertising campaigns, which accounted for great improvement in 2000 and in 2010. We look forward to an even better result in terms of minority groups, because we have put even more resources in our advertising and in our partnership programs, focused on languages and on minorities.

MARTIN: I want to hear more about that in a minute, but I want to bring Lizette Olmos into the conversation. What's your take on why Latinos have been under-represented? Even though I think it is - it is known now by most people that Latinos are the largest minority group in the country, why do you think Latinos have been undercounted in the past?

Ms. OLMOS: There's a fear of being discriminated against or being deported, if they're undocumented immigrants, and as we saw in 2000, there was in terms of the undercounted Latinos, there's one million Latinos that were not counted. And so as part of the (Spanish spoken) - it's time to make yourself count campaign that LULAC's a part of - we want to make sure that we're not leaving anyone behind.

MARTIN: What exactly, Arnold Jackson, are you doing to make sure that you're not leaving anyone behind? I mean, if people have a good faith basis for not wanting to open the door to anybody who says that they're from the government because they don't trust their motivations, what can you do?

Mr. JACKSON: I think we're doing some very effective things. LULAC, as was mentioned, and black civic organizations are the kind of coalitions that represent undercounted groups and that represent for us a symbol of trust to those groups.

MARTIN: So it's part of the idea that groups like LULAC will recruit census workers, for example? Lizette, is that…

Mr. JACKSON: That has already happened. We've had tremendous outpouring of applicants for our first operation, which is starting now. We have over a million applicants in our files. We have partnership specialists. We have 680 of those and they represent over 55 languages, and we will be recruiting another 2,000 due to the stimulus funding. And as I go around the country - I was in New Orleans Friday, I've been to other cities, and the communities, the local media, the political leadership, really understands now what the census means and that energy, some of which has transferred over from the '08 political campaign, is just a momentum, it's a tide - a tidal wave that we hope to ride right on through 2010.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us you are listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the 2010 census. We're joined by Arnold Jackson of the Census Bureau and Lizette Olmos for the League of United Latin American Citizens.

Lizette, what about the whole issue of the foreclosure crisis, which we know has affected minority communities more heavily than others, even though it's affected people across the country? And people who've lost their homes due to foreclosure may be doubling up with relatives. These might be sensitive issues for people to talk about, even with people they know very well. Is there a strategy? And Mr. Jackson, I want to hear from you on this is well. But is there a strategy for addressing that?

Ms. OLMOS: We have centers around the country and a housing commission to address this issue, where we've begun to hold workshops to reach out to the households in Spanish. And this is a very effective grassroots strategy.

MARTIN: And Mr. Jackson, I wanted to ask about the African-American community, which - Lizette and you have made the point that maybe people have an historic distrust of government officials, which either is something that they brought with them or is something that's being reinforced by things that have happened since they've been here. But what about African-Americans? There's no - presumably there's no language barrier.

Mr. JACKSON: Our history as African-Americans includes, unfortunately, a very, very difficult relationship in many cases with authorities, with law enforcement, sometimes even with the educational system.

So to persuade potential respondents to the census that they should become converted and be respondents sometimes requires a bit more effort, a big more education and primarily trust.

And trust is what we gain by working with local partners. We have local partners that are faith-based, that are governmental in some cases, in some cases community-based organizations.

These organizations understand the census, understand the benefits of the census, and they are able to convince - in the African-American community, very similar to in the Latino community; those who may have had an encounter with the law, those who may be living in situations that are not traditional - that this is safe, it's confidential, the information is not shared with other agencies, we're not a law-enforcement agency, we're a statistical agency.

And to get this message across, we really count on our partners to work with us in that regard.

MARTIN: Do you think, Lizette, that - I understand that this is part of the education process - but do you think a lot of the people you're reaching out to believe you, they believe that, in fact, this information will not be shared with law enforcement?

Ms. OLMOS: Yes, and that's part of this communications outreach, the awareness, using the vast media campaign that we are having that was effective with the presidential elections, as we saw record turnouts of over 10-million Latinos that came out to vote.

And we use - the media were our partners in this effort to get the word out. So people are going to know that this is something that is not going to be shared. Their information is confidential.

MARTIN: I want to mention that the census questionnaire will also be available in Chinese, Korean, Russian, Vietnamese and Spanish.

Mr. JACKSON: Yes. There will be five languages, and we will have over 59 language guides available.

MARTIN: Next year's census will be high-tech. Canvassers, as I understand it, will go door to door with hand-held computers equipped with GPS.

Now that's a double-edged sword, because you can't really mess up the use of a pencil, you know, or a pen. They don't fail very often. Are you confident that the technology will hold up and be effective?

Mr. JACKSON: Yes, and in fact, Michel, we are not using the hand-held-with-GPS to collect the information for the form next year. We're using it right now, starting this week, to verify address information.

So we're using it to build up the list that we will use next year to do the census, and we are dispatching 140,000 listers this week with hand-held computers with GPS capability, but that's to verify addresses, to add addresses we don't have, to add streets we don't have, to eliminate addresses that are not valid and then to use that list to have an accurate database of addresses this time next year.

MARTIN: What needs to happen to ensure a successful and accurate census?

Mr. JACKSON: We must share ownership of the census with every group, with every person who is a resident of this country. It's not my census; it's ours. It's in our hands, and as we come out of the planning phases, I look at it as passing ownership from the census, the census headquarters, the census organization to the country.

And if we can continue to get the kind of excitement about owning the census from those who we would like to have participate, then I think we'll be tremendously successful. But it's a shared ownership philosophy that I've been trying to push at every opportunity.

MARTIN: Arnold Jackson is the associate director of the Decennial Census. He joined us from Census Bureau Headquarters in Suitland, Maryland.

Lizette Olmos is a national communications director for the League of United Latin American Citizens, the oldest and largest civil-rights organization dedicated to the concerns of Latino Americans. She joined us here in our Washington, D.C., studios. Thank you both for joining us.

Ms. OLMOS: Thank you.

Mr. JACKSON: Thank you for having me.

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