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U.S. Census Bureau/Public Information Office (PIO)

Common census

Politics | Critics wonder why the 2010 census isn't going to find out whether respondents are U.S. citizens

Issue: "Save the unions," Oct. 24, 2009

For Perla Beltran, life isn't easy: She lives in a gritty corner of New York City, has suffered the loss of her thieving husband, and recently fell in with a disreputable crowd. Fortunately for Beltran, there's a government agency that can help: the U.S. Census Bureau.

If that sounds odd, it's because Beltran's saga is actually the plotline of a popular Spanish-language soap opera. Perhaps even odder: The U.S. Census Bureau helped develop the idea.

The unconventional pairing is part of the Census Bureau's effort to encourage Hispanics to participate in the fast-approaching 2010 census. The bureau will begin mailing census forms to residents in all 50 states in March 2010. Officials aim to count all residents, including non-citizens.

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For the bureau, that presents a challenge, especially if residents don't speak English or fear reprisals if they're in the country illegally. When it comes to Hispanics-the fastest-growing minority group in the country-the bureau is pouring millions of dollars into advertising campaigns and outreach efforts to assure residents that census information is private and confidential.

That's exactly what an actor playing a census worker told Beltran on the Telemundo network's popular soap opera Mas Sabe el Diablo, or The Devil Knows Best. In an episode airing later this fall, Beltran, played by actress Michelle Vargas, will become a census worker herself, brightening her dimming prospects. Along the way, the show will dispense information about the census aimed at encouraging viewers to participate.

Bureau officials say they helped the network develop the Beltran storyline by sending a staff member to meet with the show's writer and by providing some props. While the bureau gets some free advertising, the network gets something too: The Nielsen Ratings system for television is tied to census results. The more Telemundo viewers fill out the census, the more the network will be able to prove audience growth to advertisers.

But the bureau isn't just relying on soap operas and ads. For the first time, they're also sending bilingual census forms to some 13 million homes in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods. The bilingual forms will contain the same questions included in English-only questionnaires. But despite the bureau's massive efforts to reach Hispanic residents, there's one question that won't be on the form: Are you a U.S. citizen?

For some, that's troubling for one central reason: Census population figures determine apportionment for congressional seats and the Electoral College. As states stand to lose or gain seats based on population growth, some say including illegal residents in that part of the count isn't fair. The census hasn't asked about citizenship for decades, but some say the question is more urgent since rates of illegal immigration have surged over the last two decades.

Census Bureau officials say they look to Congress for instructions about adding questions. Meanwhile, Congress has been lackluster about any changes. The only peep has come from Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), who introduced a bill last month aimed at adding a citizenship question. But with the census less than six months away, the bureau is already printing forms.

As demographers debate the possible effects of illegal populations-and other trends-on congressional apportionment, one thing remains clear: The census remains a politically slippery issue with broad-reaching implications, even if some are gaining only tepid attention six months before the census begins.

Behind the scenes, tens of thousands of temporary workers have been joining census offices to finalize address listings and other details for a census expected to cost as much as $15 billion. Besides the new bilingual form, the bureau will introduce one other major change: Unlike the last three census rounds (1980, 1990, and 2000), officials will no longer mail a long version of the census with additional questions to a smaller number of households. Instead, they will send only a "short form" to each home.

To ask more detailed questions, the bureau has moved to its American Community Survey (ACS)-a questionnaire sent to 3 million households each year to gain a statistical sample on a host of questions. One of those questions is whether the resident is a citizen, but those numbers aren't used in determining congressional representation.

The census information collected from the short form sent to every home will serve two primary purposes: apportioning congressional seats and allocating federal funds. The federal government will use population figures to award some $400 billion each year for projects like schools, roads, and extra police officers.

For Elliott Stonecipher, it's the congressional seats he's most worried about. The Louisiana demographer says based on last year's data from the ACS, several states with a significant net gain in population from non-citizen populations include Texas, Nevada, Arizona, and Florida, all states with large numbers of illegal immigrants. Those states could gain more seats in the House, while other states, like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana, could lose a seat.

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