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Census Slackers

From now through early July, a veritable army of temporary workers will be reaching out to the households of those New Yorkers the Census Bureau didn't hear from in the mail. Most will be asked to fill out the so-called short form, which asks about the age and gender of members of the household. But a significant percentage will be called upon to negotiate a much more complex instrument: the 38-page long form which inquires about such matters as income (level and sources), marital relationships among adult household members, extent and character of participation in paid employment, educational attainment, needs for assistance in the tasks of daily living, place of birth and citizenship status and much, much more.

All terribly useful information for those who need to understand and respond to the changing nature of America's myriad social and economic structures. And, unquestionably, the Census Bureau has been capably and professionally carrying out this large-scale survey assignment every ten years since 1790. Indeed the requirement for some form of enumeration is set forth in the Constitution. But what began as a simple head count for purposes of defining Congressional Districts has morphed into what many now regard as a formidable invasion of privacy. (Note: only 16% of all households receive the long form.) Resistance on this score has escalated recently because of well-founded concerns about the abuses connected with the misuse of personal information gathered from Internet web-sites. Moreover, undocumented immigrants and the immigrant communities in general are apprehensive, despite specific and profuse assurances to the contrary, about the possible use of Census returns against them. This is because changes in the immigration laws in 1996 gave the INS swinging new powers, which it has used, to deport undocumented immigrants. And these are two categories that New York is well represented in: foreign-born residents and Internet users.

Anyone home?

As of late April, only 53% of New York City's close to three million households have returned their filled out Census forms. This rate of return is not that much different from that of ten years earlier. By borough, it ranges from a high of 60% in Staten Island to a low of 48% in Brooklyn. Nationally, the rate of return is quite a bit higher at around 65%. After two censuses of lower response rates, there has actually been a slight uptick at the national level -- because of a higher rate of return among Latinos. Thus far at least, response rates in New York City have been markedly lower in black neighborhoods than in Latino ones. Across the country though, the blacks' response rate shows no pattern of decline from the decade earlier census. New York seems to be an anomaly. As might be expected the highest responses inside and outside of the city occur in predominantly white middle income areas; 65% in Brooklyn Heights, 72% in Nassau County.

Averse to answer the Census form because of their illegal status, undocumented immigrants' non-responses are greater among Latinos than among blacks. But blacks in New York City, including middle income blacks, seem to have developed a greater degree a mistrust over time. The citywide response rate in black neighborhoods is down by 5% in 2000 to below 40%. And, as far as one can tell from fragmentary evidence, rates are down by more in middle income black neighborhoods than in low income ones. In a May 16th New York Times article, Sarah Kershaw posits that the most probable reason seems to be a general mistrust engendered by the sharp reaction among middle class blacks to several high-profile police brutality cases in the last few years in New York City.

What can the Census Bureau do about the minority undercount? Not much. The Census can and does overcome the language barrier among non-English speaking immigrant groups by printing in other languages. And they do manage to keep the INS at arm's length. But, ultimately, minority groups and undocumented immigrants must participate of their own accord.

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