Census Takers Need Help With Hard-to-Reach Groups

With more than $400 billion at stake, and just 10 questions, the 2010 U.S. Census makes the cash prize on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” seem a tad trifling. That’s why social workers in communities nationwide are helping census takers connect with hard-to-enumerate populations such as immigrants and non-English speakers.

The U.S. Constitution requires the federal government to take a headcount every 10 years of each person living in the U.S., regardless of residency status. In turn, Census data help determine the apportionment to localities of federal funding for such things as hospitals, emergency services and schools, as well as the allotment of representatives for each state in the U.S. House of Representatives and congressional district boundaries.

“The Census means everything to social work,” says NASW Board member Guadalupe Lara, who also serves as a regional migrant partnership specialist for the Census Bureau in Detroit. “The funds divvied out based on census data go to support the very agencies and institutions that employ many of the nation’s social workers.”

In her role with the Census Bureau, Lara works with immigrant advocacy organizations and businesses that employ migrant workers in Michigan, West Virginia and Ohio to encourage participation in the Census.

Michigan, where the economy has been hit hard by the foundering auto industry, certainly cannot afford to lose more money, Lara said. “So, it’s pivotal that we count everybody. If we don’t count everybody, we will have to live with the money we get for the next 10 years.”

Several state chapters of NASW, including Michigan, have partnered with the Census Bureau to raise awareness of the importance of participating and to help debunk persisting myths about how the government can use Census data.

For example, Kate Audette, government relations and political action associate for the NASW Massachusetts Chapter, said many immigrants in the U.S. fear that providing information to the Census could lead to their deportation.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” she said.

In an article for her chapter’s newsletter, Audette pointed out that federal law protects the confidentiality of respondents’ information and stipulates that it cannot be used against individuals by any government agency or court.

“In working with their clients who may be immigrants, social workers should outline the protections in the Census,” Audette told NASW News. “They need to understand that by completing the census, they are in no way setting themselves up to compromise their residency status.”

Lara says that people also are concerned about identity theft. “There’s also a lot of post-Hurricane Katrina anger and general anti-government sentiment,” she added, noting that Census events draw picketers who believe the Census wastes taxpayer dollars.

NASW Illinois Chapter Executive Director Joel Rubin said social workers are uniquely positioned to allay lingering concerns.

“Social workers are trusted by their clients, many of whom are the same people the Census has difficulty counting, and we can make it clear to these people that there is nothing to be afraid of,” Rubin said.

And now is the time to do so. Last month, every residence in the nation was to have received the 10-question census form, with the first question asking: “How many people were living or staying in this house, apartment, or mobile home on April 1, 2010?”

Households that do not mail back the completed questionnaire to the Census will be visited by a census taker. Door-to-door census taking is much more costly; that’s why the Census urges everyone to complete and return the questionnaire by mail.

“It costs us just 42 cents in a postage-paid envelope when households mail back their 2010 Census forms,” Census Bureau Director Robert Groves said in a March 1 press release. “The Census Bureau will spend about $25 per person if we have to go out and knock on the doors of households that don’t mail them back.”

While social workers legally cannot fill out the questionnaire for their clients, they can guide clients through the process, Lara said. Certain advocacy organizations, like Detroit-based LA SED (Latin Americans for Social and Economic Development Inc.), which employs social workers, have been designated by the Census as questionnaire assistance centers. LA SED is helping non-English speakers with completing the questionnaire.

Lara is encouraging social workers to get directly involved with the Census. She says there are many jobs available with the Census that require the skills of social workers.

“Our work is about engaging people, and that requires good communication skills, being culturally competent and able to convey information in a way that is congruent with different communities — all of which social workers are trained to be,” she said. “I tell all social workers that this is a wonderful opportunity. It’s a great job!”