Making Sure The 2010 Census Counts Everyone Equally

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A group of black civil rights leaders, including the Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, met with Commerce Secretary Gary Locke this past week to discuss ways to improve the government's count of African Americans. In the 2000 Census, about three million blacks were not counted, while many whites were overcounted. Host Liane Hansen talks with NPR news analyst Juan Williams.


Health care is not the only major agenda item for the Obama administration in 2010. The census will be taken in the new year. A group of black civil rights leaders, including the reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, met with Commerce Secretary Gary Locke this past week to discuss ways to improve the government's count of African-Americans. In the 2000 census, about three million blacks were not counted and many whites were over-counted. The government uses census numbers to allocate federal funding and draw up political districts.

For more, NPR's news analyst Juan Williams joins us. Hi, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Liane.

HANSEN: Representatives from the National Urban League and the NAACP were at that meeting as well. What was the takeaway?

WILLIAMS: I think the big issue was about the prison population. About, you know, 40 percent of America's prison population is made up of African-Americans. It's 60 percent if you include Hispanics. So, what you had was these minority group leaders, including Marc Morial of the National Urban League, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Ben Jealous of the NAACP, were concerned about how prisoners would be counted.

And here's the rub, Liane, if a prisoner is from, let's say, New York, Atlanta, Houston, but is actually in prison somewhere else in the state or even out of state, is that person counted as a resident of that city or is he counted as a resident of the place where he's imprisoned? This is something that's become a larger and larger issue with mandatory sentencing.

And so now you get a situation where not only civil rights leaders, but someone like Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, says, oh, you got to count them by their last known address, which would bring them back to that urban area, and of course that would mean more money, greater representation in Congress for those urban areas. So, this is a major issue for minority groups.

HANSEN: Do you know if the Census Bureau plans to change the way it counts prisoners in the 2010 survey?

WILLIAMS: Too late. I think that, you know, there's been no commitment made by Gary Locke, the Commerce secretary. They're looking at it. There's much discussion about it. But, really, the census essentially begins in January, if you will, but the actual count, of course, the forms go out in March and the actual count takes place, literally, April 1st. And then they have follow-ups where people come and knock on doors in areas where folks have not responded adequately. So, you can see, we're really on the cusp of things starting and changing the rules at this point look pretty difficult.

HANSEN: African-Americans and other racial and ethnic groups, along with immigrants and the poor, are among what the census workers call hard-to-count groups. Why is that?

WILLIAMS: Well, distrust, in a word, Liane. And, also, you think about it, just look at something like poor neighborhoods, large distrust of authority, especially people coming with badges and announcing themselves as federal census takers and workers.

And then there are other issues that pop up - things like confusion. Do you count your children? Lots of people, and it turns out, lots of people in minority and poor communities think, oh no, they just want to know about the adults who live here. This is particularly true if you look back at past censuses with regard to babies. For some reason, people don't count babies. And, of course, it's supposed to be that everyone counts.

Another point of confusion might be something like Hurricane Katrina. It's dispersed people in largely, heavily black areas, I should say, Liane. Areas like Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi. So, how do you know if people intend to come back and live in those area, or are they staying where they are temporarily living or maybe temporarily working? So, this is all part of the confusion.

And, of course, one of the issues that plays into this is something so simple as the fact that, you know, immigration officials might scare of illegal immigrants, and illegal immigrants are to be counted. So, all of this factors into why you have an undercount that was estimated to be about 4.5 million in the 2000 census for blacks and Hispanics. I might add here, Liane, there was estimated to be an over count of white Americans, especially retirees, because they have more than one residence.

HANSEN: NPR's news analyst Juan Williams. Thanks a lot, Juan.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Liane.

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