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COMMUNITY VOICES: Community leaders: We can do better next time

Kelly Bates

With data from the 2010 U.S. Census still just hitting the news, activists from “hard to count” communities in Massachusetts are already advising Census officials on how to do better next time. Representatives of 23 community organizations recently met with Census officials and offered an array of recommendations for 2020, including appeals to better accommodate the ethnic and linguistic complexity of Massachusetts.  

Among their concerns is the confusing and outdated nature of the racial and ethnic categories on Census forms.  Many want the word “Negro” removed from the Census, as it evokes images of segregation and inferiority. Others want easier access to translation assistance and practical help for people with disabilities.

“People were really confused,” said Felipe Zamborlini of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

Portuguese speakers, in particular, did not know how to check the ethnic designations on the forms, said Helena Marques of the Immigrants Assistance Center in New Bedford. “We are Latin but we are not Latino.” Some members of her community also needed questionnaires in Portuguese, which were not readily available, she said.

Clifton Braithwaite, a representative of the Boston NAACP, said even the use of the word “Black” is confusing. “A lot of newcomers come in and don’t want to be recognized as ‘Black Americans.’ ” The form should say “Black,” then give people options to select their nation of origin or ethnicity, he said.  

Braithwaite is an example of someone who might have had trouble filling out a Census form. He was born in Lynn, Mass., but his father is from Venezuela and his mother was born in Barbados and grew up in Trinidad. He is dark-skinned but it took some time before he self-identified as a “Black American.”

The U.S. Census Bureau engaged in an unprecedented partnership with community organizations last year to get a better head count among low-income people, immigrants and people of color. Distrust of government, language barriers and frequent changes in address have long presented road blocks to full participation in the Census.

In Massachusetts, the Census Bureau’s efforts to boost participation were augmented by 30 organizations that received $500,000 in grants and resources from the Massachusetts Census Equity Fund, a partnership of 12 charitable foundations led by Access Strategies Fund. Civic leaders care about the numbers because they influence the redistricting of state and federal legislative districts. Census numbers also play a role in determining how much federal money flows to cities and towns for vital public services.

Participating organizations sponsored door-knocking events, radio talk shows and creative activities such as a “March to the Mailbox” to get people to complete the forms.  

The results of their work were apparent in the “mail-back participation rates” reported by the Census Bureau recently and compared against 2000. The state saw an increase in participation of 1 percent overall, but in some hard-to-count census tracts where the organizations worked the increases were higher — about 3 to 5 percent.

Representatives of the groups asked Census officials if they could have a continuing role in shaping activities in the months ahead.  

Among their concerns:

• Activists in urban areas would like prisoners counted in cities where they live, not in prisons where they are housed temporarily.

• Activists in rural areas want questionnaires mailed to post office boxes, where many people receive their mail.

• There is widespread concern about the challenges faced by people with language barriers and disabilities.  The Census Bureau set up numerous “Questionnaire Assistance Centers” in 2010 to provide one-on-one assistance. Yet, some of these centers were not accessible to people with disabilities and some were staffed by people who did not speak the languages of those they were there to help.

• Community leaders expressed interest in shaping decisions about the racial and ethnic designations on the forms and getting rid of the word “Negro.” Their goals are to avoid confusion next time and to capture more detailed data on their communities.

The recent discussion between the two groups was more than a polite exchange of ideas. The U.S. Census begins planning the decennial headcount many years before it is actually conducted.  Moreover, the Bureau collects information from U.S. households on an ongoing basis through the American Community Survey, which is sent to a sampling of households and asks for more detailed data.

Decision making for the Census goes through a lengthy and complex process within the federal government, involving both the Census Bureau and the Office of Management and Budget.

 Any changes in questions or wording are considered several years in advance and must be submitted to Congress before they become official. Nonprofit groups want to know key planning deadlines well in advance to ensure input from communities before the next census is taken.

Kelly Bates is executive director of Access Strategies Fund.