It’s nearly time to stand up and be counted.
The Census Bureau will begin mailing out questionnaires for the 2010 Census next March but just two weeks ago, the state Senate launched a new website, encouraging participation, answering common questions and giving tips on how to get people to participate.
At a time when officials and advocacy groups are debating issues like counting illegal aliens, the Senate will attempt to dispel common myths about the Census and remind everyone that the information they provide is confidential. It is not shared with immigration, law enforcement, the housing authority or any other government agencies because to do so would be against the law.
"It’s important for people to understand that our schools, hospitals and transportation depend on funding determined by the information gathered in the Census," state Sen. majority leader, Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans), said in a statement. "That’s why we must make sure our state’s population is accurately counted. Our future depends on it."
The Census counts every person living in the United States and is mandated by the constitution. It is used to determine each state’s representation in Congress as well as how much federal aid is allotted to local and state programs.
"The federal government does not do enough to address the problems of illegal immigrants of which there are half a million to 750,000 living in New York City," said Sen. Frank Padavan (R-Bellerose). "The costs associated with this number of people in the areas of healthcare, education and judicial justice runs into the billions. The only way to recoup this money is if these people are counted."
In 2010, the Census failed to count hundreds of thousands of people living in New York State and in some neighborhoods only 35 percent of residents returned the questionnaire that was mailed to them, according to Curtis Ellis, the regional press coordinator for the state Senate. "We don’t want that to happen again," he said.
The national average response rate was 67 percent. The New York City average was 55 percent and in Queens the average was 54 percent. Southeast Queens was the lowest rated portion of the borough with only 46 percent returning the Census questionnaire.
Ellis said the undercount could have stemmed from many factors. One possible reason is that the Census relies on its own list of addresses to make sure questionnaires are mailed to all residents and households, but the list may have been incomplete. And many people do not list everyone in their home.
Some people do not return the form because the questionnaire is not written in their native language, while others choose not to participate because they fear government reprisal over their illegal immigration status.
If a person does not return the form, a census taker visits the home to ask and record the answers to the questions. If no one answers the door, the census taker will make up to three return visits, each time leaving a door hanger with a phone number that they can call to schedule a visit.
Census takers are trained, go through a screening process and are sworn to protect the privacy of information gathered, under penalty of law. They must also be a citizen of the United States, pass a written test and background check as well as employment verification. Also, passing the written test does not necessarily mean the person will be hired.
"We are on target with our recruitment of Census takers," said Veronica Lavarro, media specialist with the New York Regional Census Center in an email statement. "We may at some point do some very targeted recruitment based on geography and specific needs (i.e. language requirement)."
The Census Bureau has launched a campaign, which includes partnership programs, where they will work with more than 80,000 organizations state, local, and tribal governments, community-based organizations, faith-based organizations, schools, media, businesses and others to spread the word about the 2010 Census.
"The 2010 Census has a fully integrated communications campaign designed to increase participation across all segments of the population, including the hard to count," Lavarro said.
In addition they will implement a language program which will build on the one introduced for the 2000 Census, with some improvements. Guides to help people fill out their census form will be available in 59 languages, plus Braille and large type for the visually impaired.
For the first time, 13 million bilingual English and Spanish Census forms will be sent to areas that need them. Residents will also be able to request a form in Spanish, simplified Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Russian.
The Census Bureau will also set up roughly 30,000 Be Counted/Questionnaire Assistance Centers across the country, to aid those who need help filling out their form. They can also go there if they think they have been overlooked in the count.
The state Senate is working with neighborhood leaders to form Complete Count Committees in neighborhoods that have had low return percentages.
These coalitions consist of businesses, religious organizations, community organizations, elected officials and others committed to increasing participation in the Census.
One such organization called Seva, a group of business professionals from Richmond Hill, whose goal is to bring about greater change in Queens immigrant communities, have launched the South Asian 2010 Census Committee and the Richmond Hill 2010 Census Committee, because historically, the South Asian community has had low levels of participation in the Census.
"We are slowly building up our membership," said Gurpal Singh, executive director of Seva. "Our success will be based on how many people participate and dispense the information within their network."
So far, RH2010 has 40 members representing 20 different organizations and SA2010 has 30 members representing 20 different organizations. During their meetings, the groups have given presentations, going over each of the 10 questions listed on the form and explaining why the information is necessary.
As the Census draws closer, the two groups plan to hold rallies, town hall meetings and other events and workshops as well as to increase their presence at large public events such as parades and concerts. "A lot of communities don’t have good support networks. That’s the missing link," Singh said. "Unless there are grassroots organizations on the ground doing it internally, we are not going to have a large response."
Other advocacy groups like Make the Road New York, an organization that promotes economic justice, equality and opportunity through community outreach are also doing their part.
They will work to increase awareness about the upcoming Census and demystify fears in immigrant communities by holding events and workshops as well as by knocking on doors and visiting with residents personally.
"Any interaction with the government can be frightening to people who don’t know what their rights are," said Javier Valdes, deputy director of Make the Road New York.
Beginning in January 2010, the group will also become part of a broader coalition that will participate in a campaign that the city is launching called "Yes We Count."
"It’s in the best interest of everyone for the proper number of people to be counted," Valdes said. "It ensures proper representation in Washington as we take on issues such as healthcare and immigration."
While most would agree, Sen. John Vitter (R-Louisiana) offers a dissenting opinion. He believes counting noncitizens is unfair because it gives more congressional representation to states with high concentrations of illegal immigrants while those with relatively low numbers like Louisiana would be penalized. Therefore, he is sponsoring an amendment that would require illegal immigrants to list their status on next year’s Census.
The legislation, which would be attached to a spending bill for the Census Bureau and other agencies, caused a lot of controversy and has angered many civil rights groups. As a result, attempts to get the Vitter amendment passed through the Senate have been delayed.
"I think its fairly reasonable thinking but I absolutely disagree with it because it suppresses the count," Singh said. "The country should know truthfully how many people are living in these communities so we can make better policies."
"With only 160 days remaining until Census Day, changing the Census questionnaire now, as the Vitter Amendment proposes, would be counterproductive, threatens to undermine the results of the entire Census, and could even prevent the Census Bureau from meeting its statutory deadlines for completing the process," Smith said in a statement. "We are committed to the 2010 Census accurately counting everyone living in New York State so our communities receive the resources we deserve."