2010 census groups reach out to illegal immigrants, Hispanics and blacks

Census 2010The Spanish-language soap “Mas Sabe El Diablo” (“The Devil Knows Best”) soon will treat viewers to more than the typical vixens and hunks.

A main character is set to become a census worker, a lackluster job more associated with tallying neighbors on the block than notches on the bedpost.

The Telemundo network sees the unusual casting not as a ratings grabber but as an awareness campaign underscoring concerns that the once-a-decade tabulation of the nation’s population faces especially severe challenges in counting minorities and hard-to-reach communities.

Meanwhile, federal authorities have stepped up arrests of illegal immigrants, leading to worries that those residents will remain underground rather than report their presence to a federal census worker. Hence, the soap plot line, in which an unwed mother takes a census job and in the process educates her family ? and immigrant viewers ? about the government count.

“We’re going wherever the viewers are, even though you’re combining something that’s a little different with the steamy telenovela,” network spokeswoman Michelle Alban said.

In the midst of the challenges, the government agencies and nonprofit groups that typically organize outreach are facing decimated budgets just months before the census takes place in the spring.

That means areas without money to undertake extensive outreach efforts might miss out on a helping hand to climb out of the recession because they will not get their share of about $400 billion in federal aid allocated each year strictly on population, such as unemployment benefits.

“In communities that fall short in their count, it’s going to be a double whammy,” said Robert Wharton, president of a Chicago nonprofit and member of the volunteer committee that is helping Cook County promote the census.

The census forms will be mailed in late March, to be returned in April. Those who do not return the forms will receive visits from census takers later in 2010. But much of the battle is already being fought in block clubs, neighborhood meetings and church basements.

At the Rogers Park Community Council, a multiracial group of church members, immigrant aid workers and business owners recently brainstormed ways to reach one of the most diverse populations in the city.

Many of the participants reported that their own agencies have seen their staffs slashed, casting doubts on how much outreach they could really do. The community council wanted to print census-related T-shirts, but it couldn’t raise enough money even for that.

Participants suggested a host of ideas ? murals geared to the homeless, multilingual mailers ? but agreed their biggest selling point needs to be that an accurate census count can funnel badly needed public money into communities.

“This is not a joke,” Elizabeth Vitell, the council’s executive director, told fellow participants. “This is a chance to do something where we will see results in our communities for years to come.”

Nationwide, 65 percent of Hispanic residents and 60 percent of black residents returned census forms in 2000, compared with 78 percent of white residents, according to the Government Accountability Office, ultimately leading to higher rates of being undercounted.

The consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers estimated that Cook County ultimately will lose about $200 million this decade because of undercounts in the 2000 census. Researchers estimated that Illinois will lose about $12,000 in federal funds over the next decade for each uncounted person.

In Chicago, philanthropists worried that government funding for census outreach will be insufficient have taken an unprecedented step to pay for outreach.

Ten foundations, including the Woods Fund of Chicago, Chicago Community Trust and Polk Bros. Foundation, will donate a total of $1 million in grants to nonprofits that will be announced in early September.

Charles Boesel, spokesman for the Joyce Foundation, said participants had noticed troubling trends, including two months of delays in confirming a new Census Bureau director because of GOP concerns that he would promote sampling instead of official counts, a technique that critics call a political maneuver to boost the totals of undercounted minorities.

The new director, Robert Groves, was confirmed in late July but not before lawmakers had tried to eliminate hundreds of millions of dollars in census funding during the ongoing appropriations process.

Census officials say the budgeted $15 billion ? a record ? will be in place, including an increase in “Be Counted” sites, locations where residents can fill out forms if they aren’t reached at home.

Also, the Census Bureau plans to send out forms in Spanish and English for the first time to neighborhoods with high immigrant populations.

In Illinois, the ongoing state budget wrangling has threatened funding for the New Americans Initiative, which promotes civics among immigrants and naturalized citizens. Flavia Jimenez, of the nonprofit Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said she is less optimistic now that her partners will be able to piggyback on the state-funded initiative to promote the census in ethnic communities.

Illegal immigrants are an especially hard-to-reach group, Jimenez said, because they do not want their status known to federal authorities. Likewise, if they are exceeding occupancy limits in their homes, they are afraid that municipal authorities will find out.

To combat those concerns, activists have emphasized that federal law prohibits the Census Bureau from sharing individuals’ data with other government agencies, including Immigration officials.

In Cook County, the volunteer outreach committee has received only $150,000 from the county for outreach, compared with $500,000 the last time.

Albert Pritchett, the county’s former chief administrative officer and chairman of the committee, said his group will need more funding to match the improved participation in the previous census.

“We recognize getting those funds is going to be more difficult this time around,” he said, “but we think the costs are essential, especially when you look at what the return is.”

(c) 2009, Chicago Tribune. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.