On Jan. 4, a 46-foot gooseneck trailer named “Mail It Back” traversed Times Square, setting off on its cross-country 2010 census Road Tour. Politicians and hundreds of passersby gathered to observe this large blue vehicle, chock full of demonstrative technology and information about the U.S. census. Every ten years, population counts from the census are used to decide allocation of Congressional seats, government funding, and electoral votes.
It was no accident that “Mail It Back”—a vehicle intended to teach people across the country about the importance of the U.S. decennial census—made its first stop in Harlem the next day. With just a 40 percent participation rate, Harlem has been among the lowest-counted communities in North America—an issue that experts say has resulted in scant resources and congressional under-representation.
As the March 2010 census approaches, many claim that this is about to change. Nationwide campaigns such as the Census Road Tour have combined their efforts with grassroots programs spearheaded by local politicians, churches, and small businesses.
But just how effective these initiatives will be remains to be seen, others say, as patterns of the past and problems inherent in Harlem’s demographics raise questions about whether substantial change can really be implemented.
Poor participation in 2000
While eyes are glued on Harlem’s future performance in the census, local officials are looking to the past as they seek to make sense of the area’s low participation rate.
Harlem’s 2000 census participation was particularly low, Carmen Perez, a Community Board 9 member and senior partnership specialist for the U.S. Census Bureau, said, echoing the sentiment of a host of politicians and residents.
“We have a 40 percent participation rate, which is just poor, poor,” New York State Assembly member Keith Wright, who represents much of Harlem, said at an event last October intended to encourage participation in the 2010 census.
At a recent program with local leaders and U.S. Census Bureau representatives at the Harlem Branch of the New York Public Library, State Senator Bill Perkins cited similar figures from the 2000 census.
“It has been officially reported that our community was under-counted by 40 percent during the last census in 2000,” Perkins said at the meeting. “The state of affairs is totally unacceptable.”
The national rate, on the other hand, was 74.1 percent as of April 18, 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s final report on 2000 mail return rates.
In 2000, two forms of the census were sent out: a short form consisting of 15 questions, sent to the majority of residents, and a longer form consisting of 50 questions, sent to one out of every six residents. Citizens who received the longer form generally did not fill it out.
Yet even the national figure for participation in the long-form questionnaire—63 percent—was far higher than the average participation rate in Harlem, according to the U.S. Census Bureau mail return rate report.
In response to this problem, the forms for the 2010 census, which will be sent out on March 15, have been streamlined to 10 questions that all residents will receive. According to the U.S. Census Bureau website, this questionnaire will be one of the shortest in history.
According to census protocol, if a citizen does not return the census form in mail by the required date, a Census Bureau employee known as an enumerator will personally go to that person’s home to interview them and obtain the required information.
“The census has two stages—mailing forms and then following up with households who don’t mail it back,” said Kenneth Prewitt, a professor in Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and former director of the U.S. Census under President Bill Clinton. “It is critically important that neighborhoods, such as West Harlem, actively cooperate at both stages.”
But some say that cooperation in the second stage is especially problematic. The enumerators may intentionally skip over certain areas, which could lead to a lower population count and skewed demographic data.
“When people are actually hired to go from building to building to interview residents, they often are afraid to go to certain areas or buildings which look ‘threatening,” Barnard political science professor Flora Davidson said.
But the problem goes both ways. Some local residents fear and distrust the enumerators, and are reluctant to provide them with information.
“People are never going to trust some stranger who comes banging on their door asking for information,” said Sarah Martin, president of the tenants association for the General Grant Houses, a local public housing complex in Harlem.
The reason for this has to do with what some say is a negative perception of the government.
“Usually when the government comes to you, there’s a problem—not to give you something,” Columbia sociology professor Shamus Khan said. “Your encounters with the state are often tinged with a negative experience.”
In response to this problem, Martin and others have spoken with U.S. Census representatives about allowing residents themselves to administer the questionnaire to those in their neighborhood, rather than sending government employees to complete the task. She said this would also provide employment opportunities for her building.
Barnard urban studies professor Liz Abzug said. “I think the response rate would be much higher if residents were to get it from residents in their own buildings, because there will be that trust factor there, which will ensure more compliance.”
Fear of the unknown
Problems of trust, though, extend beyond the resident-and-enumerator relationship. Some residents say they distrust both the government and the Census process itself due to immigration, housing, and other concerns, as well as a lack of information on the census.
Some in Harlem say that the census—which is administered to both citizens and non-citizens—represents a governmental attempt to extract personal information that could be used against them.
“You think I trust the government? Hell no, I don’t,” Martha Adams, a Harlem resident, said. “My information is going through a thousand people in the government. There’s no way my information is personal.”
But according to Title 13 of the U.S. Code, the information of all census participants is kept completely confidential. The census does not ask the legal status of respondents or their Social Security numbers. Questions are limited to data such as a person’s name, sex, age, date of birth, and race.
“I think people fear the unknown and think that the government, or the census, would take away from their resources,” said Casper Lassiter, director of the Children’s Aid Society, which is an official census partner and recently held an information session for Harlem residents.
Some point to specific demographic groups in Harlem who have a strong fear of the government.
Frances Negron-Muntaner, director of Columbia’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, said, “Latinos tend to have low rates of participation in the Census for several reasons, including lack of information, ... fear of deportation or intrusion by government agencies, and limited language skills in English, among others.”
Experts also say the pervasive presence of illegal immigrants in Harlem, many of whom fear deportation if they disclose information asked by the census, is a large factor contributing to the low participation rate.
“There are a lot of illegal immigrants in CB9, an increasingly large number of whom are Mexican, and there are many immigrants who don’t speak English,” Community Board 9 member Walter South said. “As a consequence, most of these people are very fearful about giving information, and as a result, there’s a very low return rate.”
And some of these immigrants say that despite the promise of confidentiality, they will never fill out a questionnaire.
“I don’t want to fill out a paper—never, ever,” said a Mexican immigrant at a local church, who requested anonymity out of fear of potential government retribution. “If I fill it out, they might send me back home.”
Another factor, some say, is the fear of disclosing information about the number of members living in a home, which could compromise a person’s housing status. “Some people are afraid of saying if they have a partner living with them in their house, because that could maybe take their Section 8 [housing vouchers] away, because it’s only for a certain amount of people living in a house,” Lassiter said.
But those who promote the census argue that what many people do not realize is that the government is seeking to do the exact opposite of punishing them: The information the census collects helps to determine how more than $400 billion in federal funding each year is spent on infrastructure and services. And census information affects the number of seats a particular state occupies in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Still, many Harlem residents say that the whole process is relatively unfamiliar. Lisa Callender, a Harlem resident, said. “I’m going to do it. I was told to do it, but that’s all I really know about it.”
In response to what some say is a lack of education about the census, local officials in Harlem are making aggressive efforts to inform residents of its importance.
CB9 member Diane Wilson said that she and her church, St. Catherine of Genoa on 153rd Street, have been discussing ways to engage neighborhood residents in the census through workshops and informational sessions.
“We have a high illegal population, and the population does not trust the government,” Rev. Kenneth Smith, pastor of St. Catherine of Genoa, said. “When we get information, we post fliers—the only thing we can do right now is encourage.”
Others have sought to join forces with a variety of groups to help give a boost to the effort.
Cordell Cleare, chief of staff for Perkins, said, “We’ve been organizing with our tenant associations, with our immigrant organizations, with our clergy, and we’ve sent out newsletters stressing the importance of what it means to be counted.”
Susan Russell, chief of operations for local City Council member Robert Jackson, said that she has also been working with resident associations, including those for 3333 Broadway, the Grant Houses, and other Manhattanville residences, to encourage census participation.
“We have an integrated media campaign, so we think we’re making a lot of headway,” Raul Vicente, senior media specialist for the Census Bureau for the New York region, said. “We’ve been involved in a massive outreach of the entire region of New York City. We’re out there talking to everybody about the reality of what the census is all about.”
But still, some in Harlem say they have not seen outreach efforts.
“I haven’t seen any publicity yet,” said Harlem resident Debra Reiner. “I’ve seen commercials ... but I haven’t seen anyone actually do anything yet. I’d like to see this all actually happen.”