Will the 2010 Census – a “Snapshot of America” – finally zoom in on the API community?

by sunny kim

One recent school night, I went online to re-watch the figure skating programs from the 2010 Olympic Games at NBC.com. As expected, an advertisement appeared before the clip started. What caught my attention, however, was that the commercial did not advertise an allergy medicine or the latest flat screen television. Instead, it showed a U.S. Olympic athlete advocating the importance of filling out the 2010 Census.

In fact, the Census Bureau spent $5.1 million dollars to advertise during the Olympic Games and $2.5 million dollars during the Super Bowl. So what’s the big deal about the Census?

The Census Bureau claims that the Census is the “Snapshot of America” that provides critical data about the American population. One straightforward function of the Census is to determine the number of seats each state occupies in the House of Representatives, which is capped at 435 seats total. More importantly, close to $400 billion dollars of federal funding is distributed each year, and the data provided by the Census plays a major role in determining distribution of those funds.

The 2010 Census asks ten questions, such as name, number of members in household, age, sex, date of birth, house ownership or rent, and so on. The question of interest here is number nine: “What is Person 1’s race?” This seemingly innocuous question is a huge determinant of how much government aid an ethnic community receives and which ethnic issues the government prioritizes. It is for this reason that API participation in the Census is crucial.

Throughout the years, this “Snapshot of America” has been an incomplete picture as many members of the API community were undercounted. As a result, communities lost out on a significant amount of funding and services they could have received from the government.

The API community has faced many obstacles in getting complete census representation. Obviously, there is the language barrier within the API immigrant population. Some people mistakenly believe that the Census is only for American citizens. Many suspect that the data collected will be shared with other government agencies such as the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) or the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). As a result, it is always a challenge to count illegal immigrants and the homeless in the United States.

It is understandable for many to fear that their residency may be jeopardized or that they may face deportation after completing the Census. After all, the Census asks for name and phone number, and that seems to be enough information to track down anyone. In fact, in 1943, the Census Bureau compiled the names and locations Japanese Americans, helping the government to track them down faster to be sent to the internment camps. This act was legalized under the War Powers Act as a “necessity” for national security. Although the confidentiality of the Census data was restored after World War II, and the 2000 Census director, Kenneth Prewitt, made a formal apology on behalf of the Census Bureau during the time period, the Bureau lost public trust.

In addition, some people with high income do not see the urgency in filling out the form, since they feel that they do not need the social services or benefits. An even bigger problem is that some people simply do not know what the Census is altogether.

Political and community leaders now recognize these obstacles, and in 2010 are spearheading community efforts to overcome them so that API’s will be more visible politically and economically in America through the Census.

On the federal level, the Census Bureau claims to be doing everything it can to have America counted. To start, it is sending 140,000 people through “every street, up every mountain and through every barrio and ghetto in the country,” according to 2010 Census director Arnold A. Jackson in the San Francisco Chronicle.[1]

Grassroots organizations such as Chinese Affirmative Action (CAA) play a major role in promoting the 2010 Census to the API community. One initiative CAA took was to lobby for a budget increase in ethnic media. This resulted in around forty percent of the Bureau’s media budget being dedicated to Census promotion through ethnic media including television, radio programs and newspapers.

Ethnic media plays a crucial role in informing the API community because for many groups, it is a more trusted source than any other media. The message sounds more convincing when it comes from informed members of your own community than when it is delivered by strangers that work for the government. Moreover, a large majority of the ethnic population who do not speak or read English fluently already rely on ethnic media to get information.

In addition, CAA has made progress in eliminating the language barrier that often discourages the API community from filling out the Census. They won a policy change that requires the Census Bureau to “provide in-language outreach in hard-to-count communities.”[2] In the past, the letters notifying the upcoming Census were sent to addresses only in English. However, with this policy change, the letters will be sent in five different languages – English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Russian. Nonetheless, more progress is needed to address the lack of outreach to underrepresented API ethnic groups, especially within the South and Southeast Asian category, whose needs for funding have been consistently unaddressed due to their undercounting on the Census.

Promotion of the 2010 Census is happening on the Berkeley campus as well. The annual Pilipino Cultural Night (PCN), which will take place on April 11th this year, will reach out to its audience about the importance of participating in the Census. The show will have close to 2000 attendees, whom they can advertise to directly. Alvin David, Community Head of PCN, said, “While working on the show through the next two months, we hope to educate and create advocates out of the cast so that we can at least feel comfortable to share the info with our families.” He has chosen to specifically promote the Census because he realizes that “our decision at this time is potentially affecting funding that our kids will get when they are in school.” Students can post and answer questions about the Census through a blog at ucbpaapcn.wordpress.com/census/. This information will be incorporated into “the show as well as a series of YouTube videos.”

Although most recognize that the Census will generate useful data, many are still concerned over the Census’ ability to accurately collect and represent racial data. From Ethnic Studies 11AC, I learned that “Hindu” was once one of the choices given for racial category. However, “Hindu” refers to an adherent of Hinduism, a religion not a racial category. This absurd error makes me wonder how informed the Census Bureau is when designing the question choices.

One current controversy surrounds the unavailability of a multiracial category. Many mixed race individuals do not know exactly how to answer question nine. They may feel constrained to pick one or two categories that they do not feel represent them in the most accurate way.

Despite past mistakes, the Census is undeniably a useful tool to recognize and address serious issues that plague our communities. The fact that it is conducted only once every ten years makes it an even more significant project. The data collected this year will influence future policymaking and fund distribution in the future. Although there is still room for improvement in this year’s Census, the one action we can take now is to spread the word on the importance of the Census, and hope that this time the “Snapshot of America” will start to look like a truly complete picture of our country.

For more information, check out these links:

Census 2010: http://www.asianlawcaucus.org/programs/alc-redistricting-census/census-2010/

CAA Home Page: http://www.caasf.org/v2/

PCN Home Page: http://ucbpaapcn.wordpress.com/

[1] Hendricks, Tyche. (2009, March 13). Census Bureau gears up for count’s first phase. San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved from http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/03/13/BAQU16EBH9.DTL#ixzz0gXMudG56.

[2] Hsieh, Susan. (2009, November 12). CAA Secures Census Policy to Aid Hard-to-Count Communities. Retrieved from http://www.caasf.org/v2/whats-happening/caa-secures-census-policy-to-aid-hard-to-count-communities.