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Worries of Hispanic Undercount Loom as Nation Plans for 2010 Census

As the nation ramps up for next year’s census, an ongoing debate on whether Latinos will be undercounted takes on even bigger political stakes.

Hispanics often fall through the cracks when the federal government conducts its national nose count every ten years. Language barriers, distrust of government—especially among undocumented workers and older Latinos—and jobs that force workers to move frequently prevent an accurate count of the nation’s Hispanics. By some estimates, those factors resulted in an undercount of 1.3 million Latinos in 2000, the last time there was a national census.

The U.S. Census Bureau has taken steps to try to better count the nation’s Latino community next year. But there’s one factor it didn’t plan on when it began preparing for the 2010 census years ago: the recession. The faltering economy has displaced people and that, advocacy groups say, will produce an undercount of Hispanics and other minorities.

“It’s a huge concern,” says Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO). “There are people who used to be in the ‘likely to be counted’ column because they were homeowners. But now they’ve lost their homes and are now in the ‘hard to be counted’ column.”

There’s a reason why Vargas and other Hispanic advocates say the census is a number-one priority this year: they want to make sure the Hispanic community’s rapid growth is reflected with a rise in political clout. According to previous census counts, the Latino community was estimated to be 46 million strong—or about 15 percent of the U.S. population. The new census is expected to show a growth in all segments of the community. Using U.S. Census Bureau projections, the NALEO Educational Fund estimates that the census will show a total Latino population of 49.7 million, equal to 17 percent of the U.S. population, of which 8.6 million will be Latinos aged 50+.

President Barack Obama, who acknowledges concerns about minority undercounts, has increased funding for the 2010 census by $1 billion in his stimulus package. Of that money, $250 million is allocated for partnership and outreach, including $13 million for Hispanic advertising.

Census Bureau spokesperson Raul Cisneros is optimistic that next year’s count will be more accurate than the 2000 census, when only 67 percent of American households—and 64.5 percent of Latino households—mailed back completed forms. He says the bureau has taken several steps to improve the response rate.

One is a move to a short-form-only census. The old “long form,” sent to about one in six households in previous censuses, is now the American Community Survey, which will be sent to only about 3 million addresses each year throughout the next decade. People with limited English proficiency were challenged by the long form, and it complicated census interview operations. “The 2010 census will be ten questions and will take about ten minutes to complete,” Cisneros says.

Cisneros also says no one should fear the census. “Confidentiality is very important,” he says. “We do not share the information we collect with anyone.”

As another way to improve the response rate, the Census Bureau will for the first time send out 13 million bilingual questionnaires, in English and Spanish, to neighborhoods where Spanish language is more predominant. The bureau already has 140,000 workers canvassing neighborhoods to make sure it has everybody’s correct address.

Vargas is heartened by these steps, but he hopes Obama asks for more money to make sure there are enough trained census workers to visit every Hispanic household that fails to mail back its census form.

Vargas urges all Hispanics, even if they distrust government, to return census questionnaires and avoid a visit from a census taker. “One of the things older Hispanics are fearful of is people knocking on their doors,” Vargas says. “What we say is, ‘If you don’t want people to knock on your door, fill out your census form.’”

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