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Counting Gets Tougher

Language barriers. Cultural diversity. Suspicion about the government. They're all part of the daunting challenge the Census Bureau faces to accurately tally the number of Americans.

WILMINGTON, Del. — The pungent aroma of spices, beans and rice fills the matchbox-size Dominican Cafe on West Fourth Street. The lunch counter is packed when community activist Carlos Dipres enters and chats with diners about el censo. He's met by blank stares.

A block away at Juan's Auto Repair, owner Juan Vargas says he doesn't know much about the U.S. Census but is pretty sure he'll respond to the government survey when it's sent out in 2010. "As long as it's in Spanish," he says through a translator.

Meanwhile, a couple of African-American men hanging out in front of an old row house in this inner-city neighborhood refuse to talk about the Census. Period.

Language barriers. Cultural diversity. Suspicion about the government. They're all part of the daunting challenge the Census Bureau faces in just 18 months to accurately tally the number of Americans.

Counting each person in the USA every 10 years hasn't been easy since the first Census in 1790, when counters went door to door on horseback. But 220 years later, the hurdles could be unprecedented. The nation now has more than 300 million people. It's more diverse than ever. Natural disasters such as hurricanes Katrina and Ike have displaced tens of thousands. Home foreclosures have put countless families into temporary living arrangements.

To count them, the Census Bureau first has to find them. Complicating the task is a widespread climate of suspicion about personal data landing in the wrong hands and government's increased surveillance power. Much of the unease is engendered by the growing problem of identity theft and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

New anti-terrorism measures such as the Patriot Act expanded the authority of law enforcement agencies here and abroad. The Census vows confidentiality, but new state and local laws that aim to crack down on undocumented immigrants are making even some legal immigrants nervous.

"It's the first post-9/11 Census," says Terri Ann Lowenthal, a legislative consultant for The Census Project, a coalition of groups eager for an accurate Census. "There's a double issue: concern about immigrants and concern about privacy of data."

The Census Bureau has to get past the distrust and break through a vast number of languages and cultures. At the same time, the agency is scrambling to satisfy congressional overseers upset over mounting costs of the 2010 Census — now estimated at $14 billion — and its failure to use more technology such as online filing and handheld computers to help gather data.

There also is turmoil within: Preston Jay Waite, the official in charge of the 2010 Census, retired in May, and six other longtime employees, including the director, left in the past couple of years. There could be another new director next year, after the next president is sworn in.

Waite engineered a plan to use wireless handheld computers to collect information door to door from people who don't return Census forms. The plan was scrapped because of mounting costs and other problems. Reverting to a pen-and-paper Census is one reason total costs could climb another $3 billion.

"The incompetence and lack of frugality is astounding to me," says Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, the ranking Republican member of the committee that oversees the Census.

Much riding on the Census

Why bother with a Census anyway?

The Constitution requires it, for one. It mandates a count every 10 years of every person living in the USA. The numbers are used to allocate seats in the U.S. House of Representatives — a process based on the population of every state — and to draw boundaries for congressional and state and local legislative districts. The distribution of $300 billion in federal funds to communities also is based on the numbers.

Because power is money and money is power, populations that can quantify their presence — from racial and ethnic groups to school-age kids and inner-city neighborhoods — stand to gain from the Census, so they want to be counted. The problem is persuading their constituencies to cooperate with a government they don't always trust.

Many fear the information they give to the Census Bureau will be made public and used against them, some advocates say.

"In regard to persons of Arab-American ancestry, the suspicions will go even deeper because of the climate created after 9/11," says Helen Samhan, executive director of the Arab American Institute Foundation, a group that promotes Arab-American heritage and demographic research. "It's had a chilling effect."

The 19 terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks were Arabs.

"It's a challenge to get Americans to complete the forms … particularly for immigrants because we've had raids in work sites and people's homes," says Karen Narasaki, president and executive director of the Asian American Justice Center.

The Census Bureau does not ask anyone's citizenship or immigration status, but immigrants here illegally fear they could be arrested and deported, advocates say. "People are afraid," says Blanca Thames, with the Coalition for the American Dream in Tulsa. Oklahoma denies public benefits and driver's licenses to those here illegally.

"The Census is so critical to the Latinos," says Angelo Falcón, president and founder of the National Institute for Latino Policy in New York. "But punitive raids that, besides deporting people go out of their way to put them in jail, are creating a tremendous amount of fear. …Within this environment, we know people in the Latino community will not participate in something like the Census. It's an atmosphere really toxic to the Census."

The obstacles are many, but the 2010 Census has one thing working in its favor: Every household will get a short form with only seven questions about each person who lives there (name, sex, age and date of birth, race, ethnicity, relationship to the head of household and whether the home is owned or rented). It takes about 10 minutes to fill out, says Arnold Jackson, associate director of the decennial Census.

For the first time since 1930, there will be no "long form" that previously was sent to one of every six households. It asked about everything from property taxes and indoor plumbing to education, ancestry and commuting patterns. The lengthy and probing questionnaire raised protests in 2000 by some in Congress, including then-Senate majority leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., although questions had been approved by Congress.

Instead of using the long form, the Census Bureau is asking the same detailed questions through a separate survey that goes to about 3 million households a year. Other changes for 2010:

•Bilingual questionnaires. The agency for the first time will send forms in English and Spanish to about 13 million households in areas that have a high concentration of Hispanics.

•Second-chance cards. The forms will be mailed in February and March. If they're not returned, a follow-up reminder and another Census form will be sent before someone comes knocking.

Mobilization begins

The U.S. population now tops 305 million, an increase of more than 20 million since the 2000 Census. The agency has to locate where those heads are — block by block.

Hundreds of Census offices are opening nationwide, and recruitment of workers has begun. Scrapping the electronic devices the Census had planned to use means printing more paper forms and hiring more people to handle door-to-door canvassing. At its peak, the Census will need 1.3 million temporary employees. It will need to recruit 3.8 million to fill the slots. Every applicant has to be fingerprinted and pass an FBI background check.

Thomas Bush, an FBI assistant director, says law enforcement and Census officials have been preparing to deal with the deluge. Fingerprinting is expected to begin in March and will take months to complete, he says.

Organizations that represent difficult-to-count populations — immigrants and the poor — are pushing for the Census to lift the requirement that all its workers be U.S. citizens. "It works more effectively when they're able to get people from the local areas," Narasaki says.

In 2000, the government suspended immigration raids as the Census was taken to ease suspicions. It's not clear whether that will happen in 2010; the political climate has changed on immigration issues, in part because of security concerns since 9/11.

Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., introduced a joint resolution that would amend the Constitution to require that only citizens be counted for purposes of congressional apportionment. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., proposed excluding illegal immigrants from being counted by the Census.

Online or not?

The 2000 Census had the highest participation rate, yet only 67% of households responded, even after door-to-door canvassing. About 6.4 million people were missed and 3.1 million were counted twice, the bureau says.

"The undercount would be less problematic if it were evenly distributed among all Americans," said Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chairman of the Census committee, at a hearing last month.

Racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately affected: Hispanics were missed four times as often as whites; African-Americans three times as often; Asians twice as often.

Some members of Congress have been pushing the Census to allow people to fill out their forms online. "We had hoped to use the Internet," Carper says. "I want us to get as much help on the technology side as possible."

The Census Bureau says there are too many security concerns about putting Census-taking online and that the hardest-to-count populations are less likely to have Internet access.

Handheld devices were dropped for one task but will still be used to verify every residential address next year.

"Over half of the errors in 2000 were due to bad geography — put your house in my block or my house in your block," Jackson says. "This is our new weapon."

Roderick Harrison, former head of the Census' Racial Statistics Branch, hopes it works. During test runs, "field workers were having difficulty transmitting information," says Harrison, a demographer at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "Those types of problems at this point are scary."

The biggest focus should be to reach people who are traditionally missed in the head count, says A. Mark Neuman, chairman of the 2010 Census Advisory Committee, a group that promotes cooperation between the Census Bureau and various stakeholders such as racial and ethnic groups.

Many advocates believe the way to do that is through people such as Carlos Dipres in Delaware. A member of the Delaware Governor's Committee on Hispanic Affairs, Dipres is an immigrant. He knows many in the community and can allay their fears about cooperating with the government. "We need this Census," he says. "We don't have the services, but if we show up in the Census, we will."

That may not be enough to convince Arismandy Crime, 58, a Dominican immigrant and single father of three who has been in this country 40 years. He says he's never gotten much help from government, so what difference would a Census make? He says he may or may not respond.

"If people don't want to answer questions, they're not going to answer questions — period," Falcón says.

By Haya El Nasser, USA TODAY


Contributing: Kevin Johnson in Washington

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