Wrath of the Math: Understanding the Census (Pg 4)

Content hears this sort of thing all the time. “None of the information collected by the Census is made available to any other federal agency,” she states to whoever will listen.

2000 marked the highest participation rate of any Census—yet only 67% of households were counted. For 2010, the Census is pulling out all the stops to make sure that number is surpassed. 

“People don’t realize that by not filling out and mailing in their Census forms they may lose political representation,” says Tony Farthing, New York’s Regional Census Director. “Once that seat is gone, it’s gone for 10 years. That’s scary.” Having been with the Census for 32 years, Farthing remembers having doors slammed in his face in Black neighborhoods. “African Americans are a bit tougher to reach,” he acknowledges. “Prior to the 2000 Census, there was no race-specific advertisement. Now we run ads in Black media and are spending $300 million on the 2010 ad campaign.”

But judging by today’s board meeting of the Coalition for the Improvement of Bed-Stuy, there’s still plenty of work to be done. The group of mostly older businesspeople, shop owners, local politicians and activists is seated at a huge U-shaped table bombarding Content with questions. It’s her last meeting of what has been a jam-packed day. She tells them she’s come to seek their assistance because they are pillars of the community. Still, Content encounters the same skepticism that filled the air at the Justice Corps meeting.

“Has the Census thought about doing the 10-question survey online?” asks a man in a blazer. 

“Taking the Census online is something that was considered but we feel that in order to protect people’s privacy, mail is the best way to handle it,” answers Content. Poised and articulate, she looks like a student being quizzed by professors.

“Although the Census is supposed to be anonymous, is it actually easing the fears of people?” asks a woman looking over the edge of her eyeglasses. “Especially those who feel the government may use this information to come after them?”

“The Census doesn’t share any of the information it receives with other government agencies,” says Content once more. “I can’t even discuss the information I learn or else I will face five years in jail or a fine of $250,000.” Sounding like a salesman offering her best pitch, she adds: “We take your privacy very seriously.”

“Brooklyn has a high incarceration rate,” another man asks. “How will those in prison be counted?”

“Unfortunately,” she replies, “ they will be counted in the city where they are imprisoned.” The room groans, understanding that the thousands of Brooklyn residents doing time in remote upstate towns equal millions of dollars being taken away from the inner city. (One in 15 Black men 18 years and older are in prison.) New York state has more than 100 jail and prison facilities, the majority located in rural and suburban areas which receive more federal funding because the Census population includes inmates.

Another hand raises: “But what about immigrants? I live in a heavily West Indian community and I know that is a fear, being deported.”

“Look,” says Content, “if the government really wants to find you, they aren’t going to wait every ten years.” Her face is deadpan, but a few board members chuckle. What they don’t find funny is the map of Brooklyn detailing, in shades of brown, orange and red, the communities with the worst response rates during the 2000 census. Bed-Stuy, where this meeting is taking place, scored dismally— less than 40% participation.

“I don’t believe those numbers,” a woman chimes in, her disbelief drawing nods of agreement from some in the room. “How do I know that more people didn’t take part and the government isn’t lying about the numbers?”

It’s moments like this that remind Content she’s got a tough job whose success won’t be measurable for years to come. For every person she gets through to, there’s another who’s still not sold.

“If you don’t believe those numbers then that’s a larger issue,” says Content. “One that isn’t going to be resolved here.” 


Chloé A. HIlliard the Managing Editor of VIBE. Her work has appeared in Essence, The Source, Vibe and the Village Voice.

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