Past Event

Count me in or count me out: when the U.S. Census comes knocking

Café Society will meet at Chicago Cultural Center on Wednesday, January 20.

In April of 2010, people from across the nation will be counted – it’s Census time once again. Since the Census has been an instrument to determine allocations of federal money and Congressional representation, amongst other things, the process itself has been met with some criticism. While some grassroots organizations are mobilizing to encourage their constituents to be counted, many communities are crying foul.

This time, the Census is making attempts to reach audiences that have been severely neglected in the past. For the first time, a bilingual form will be sent to selected areas with high Latino populations. However, some advocacy groups don’t think this effort is enough to qualm anxieties and are using this time to push for progressive immigration policy. The National Coalition of Latino Clergy & Christian Leaders, headed by the Rev. Miguel Rivera, is leading a boycott effort—asking undocumented immigrants to refrain from census participation. Jennifer London of National Public Radio reported, “Rivera estimates more than a third of his group’s congregants are undocumented. One day, he (Rivera) says he had a flash of insight about all the local crackdowns and arrests they were facing. ‘Law enforcement has been very effective in areas where the data of Census 2000 has been used,’ Rivera says.”

However, many believe Rivera’s boycott only adds to the problems weighing down immigration reform and that it is the invisibility of undocumented immigrants that spurs xenophobic policy. Being counted, they say, is what prompts systematic change. The Drum Major Institute, a nonpartisan policy think-tank that supports progressive issues, reports: “Critics argue that since undocumented immigrants should not be present in the U.S. in the first place, they should be left out of the census as if they were, in fact, absent from our communities. But ignoring the existence of millions of people working, attending school, raising families, and contributing to local economies does not make them disappear. Instead, it leaves the nation less equipped to understand and deal with the realities of American life.”

While arguments over who will be counted divide communities and mobilization efforts, others are angry over the fact that they cannot be counted. Tracy Clark-Flory writes for “Good news, homophobes: The 2010 Census is going to make homosexuals disappear. Well, OK, they will still exist, just not officially. That’s because the census will neither ask about sexual orientation nor recognize gay marriages, civil unions, and domestic partnerships. Married same-sex partners with a child won’t even be considered ‘families.’ The U.S. Census Bureau simply isn’t interested in a person’s ‘lifestyle,’ explains spokesperson Cynthia Endo, ‘This is all about the numbers’– and gay people just don’t count.”

Others who may wish to be counted but remain invisible are the increasing numbers of poor who have no permanent address. As the financial crisis deepens and its impact is felt by more and more people, there are a rising number of people living in garages, tents, basements, and motels. The U.S. Census will not reach them. Demographer Gary Gates of the UCLA School of Law said, “There’s a ‘classic Catch-22’ at play: The census is limited to addressing issues that are backed by federal funding, but good luck trying to get it for a group that isn’t officially counted.”

Do you think the U.S. Census is a fair and accurate portrayal of who resides in the United States? In a democracy, is the Census the most egalitarian way for everyone to be counted and visible? What groups do you think are missing from the overall picture? What do communities stand to gain or lose with a fair count? What other methods should the federal government rely on, other than Census data, to determine federal allocations of funds? What other alternatives should we be implementing in addition to the Census?

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