THE BLOG

Inaccurate 2010 Census Count Could Cost Dearly

04/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Rep. Mike Honda U.S. Representative, California's 15th Congressional District

This month, ten questions are coming to your mailbox. Amid the myriad of mail, this is one you will not want to toss. It is the Constitutionally mandated decennial Census, which dictates congressional representation, determines how $400 billion in federal funding is spent on hospitals, schools, job training centers, senior centers, bridges, tunnels and public works projects, and emergency services, and creates 1.4 million jobs. Millions of forms, however, will elude the Census, either because people do not know about it or because they are fearful of the assumed consequences of participation, specifically data sharing with immigration authorities.

Nonparticipation costs us dearly. In California, the state with the most uncounted in 2000, the Census missed over 522,000 persons, resulting in a loss of $1.56 billion in federal funds over 10 years. Nationally, for every one percent of forms that go unfilled, the financial cost is $100 million for door-to-door collection of unreturned forms. That's 3 million people missed, often the minority and low-income communities who could benefit mightily from representation and aid.

The need to participate, then, is vital and we all must do our part to communicate this to our neighbors and our communities. With impending deadlines and with precious little time left, we must redouble our efforts so our counts do not fall short.

First, we must make sure we've funded outreach sufficiently. As a member of the House Commerce, Science, and Justice Appropriations subcommittee, which oversees Census funding, I advocated for boosting FY10 funding to over $7 billion and fought several floor amendments to cut Census spending. In California, the story is dismal, given Sacramento's fiscal shortfalls and the Governor's misguided priorities: the $25 million in state Census funding in 2000 was slashed to $3 million in 2010. To counteract California's cuts, I led a delegation letter asking Governor Schwarzenegger to boost funding for community-based organizations that conduct local outreach. Shortly after, the State announced an increase, albeit substantially smaller than needed. In California's 15th district, organizations like the Silicon Valley Community Foundation have come to the rescue by giving $250,000 to community-based organizations. Given state limitations, it is these local organizations that hold the key to a successful count.

Second, the Census must ensure outreach is targeting hard-to-count communities by speaking their language, since one in five residents speak a language other than English at home. This is particularly important for CA-15 district. In 2007, the San Jose Mercury News reported that Santa Clara County (SCC) is the California County with the highest percentage of immigrants, with 36 percent of its population born outside of the United States. SCC also ranks first nationally in terms of Vietnamese speakers, second in Hindi, third in Chinese and fourth in Farsi. That the Census Bureau increased SCC census staff to 33 in 2010, up from 3 in 2000, will certainly help with outreach to hard-to-count communities. Additionally, the Census is spending much of its $133 million ad campaign to reach linguistically isolated ethnic audiences.

This is a good thing. Television spots in 28 different languages, and consultations with 150,000 business and community groups, indicates that the Census is serious about ensuring comprehension. Yet errors still exist. Guides and forms are still missing the mark, with one poorly translated form for Vietnamese speakers describing the Census as a "government investigation". One state erred by hiring Chinese linguists in response to a recent request for Korean and Vietnamese specialists. The lack of specialists is impacting a broad swath of Asian Americans, including Bangladeshi, Korean, Cambodian communities and South Asians more generally. We must remedy this and fast.

Third, our outreach to these hard-to-count populations must convey the Census commitment to confidentiality. To use the information for any other purpose puts any Census official at immediate risk of imprisonment. It is a federal offence, one taken seriously by the courts, and one I've articulated at every opportunity.

Lastly, our outreach must leave no stone unturned. My meeting with Census's regional director, my video and online public service announcements, and my advocacy for a strong paid media plan for SCC are representative of the diversity of approach needed. This, along with more traditional press conferences, including statewide conferences we're organizing on February 26, meetings, and coordinated messaging with community-based organizations, businesses and schools, we can together make sure that we do not fall short of a full count in SCC.

While the 2010 Census will not be perfect, hopefully we avoid a repeat of the 4.5 million missed in the 2000 census. Between now and April, when Census forms are resent, we must do everything in our power to get as close to perfect as possible. Our ability in Congress to shape sound policy depends on it.

Rep Michael Honda is the Chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. This article first ran in the San Jose Mercury News.