Since 1790, the U.S. Census has aimed to create an accurate count of the country’s people. But that effort is only effective if said people participate.
According to Census Chief Robert M. Groves, who was appointed by President Obama last summer, 2010 will see the most extensive efforts ever to help those otherwise disenfranchised by the English language census form to partake.
Appearing at Carnegie Mellon University last week, Groves spoke of the most elemental functions of the census, and how 2010 will see a step forward in government-assisted participation to those who otherwise might ignore, or be unable to complete the form altogether.
“We are a nation of immigrants. If you studied the history of the country, the census has played a big role in defining the role and presence of new immigrant groups,” said Groves. “One benefit to ethnic minorities is you get to see your place in the portrait of America. If you participate, your part of the picture is more accurately drawn.”
The year 2000 marked the first time that paid national advertisements plugged the census, and over 72 percent of the forms were returned, making it the most successful census in decades after years of decline through the late 20th century. In 2010, the advertisements include posters in more than 20 different languages, including Yiddish, Arabic and Farsi.
But the actual census workers aren’t the only people pushing for higher return rates from non-English speaking Americans; here in Pittsburgh, efforts are being made on the local level.
Alla Puchinsky, a refugee and immigration services caseworker with the Jewish Family & Children’s Service, knows what it’s like to be an immigrant — she’s originally from Belarus.
For the past 13 years, Puchinsky has been working to help mostly Jewish immigrants with daily tasks that need to be translated — paying bills, scheduling medical appointments and the like. This month, one of those tasks is filling out the census.
Puchinsky regularly helps about 50 Russian-speaking, mostly Jewish families during her weekly visits to the Forward Shady Apartments in Squirrel Hill.
“They bring [the census form] to me just like regular mail,” said Puchinsky. “They don’t understand what it is. I tell them what it is and why we need to fill it out, and then they understand — they are educated people, but many don’t speak English; it’s difficult for them to read and write.”
While the Census Bureau doesn’t provide translators to the 120 million-plus households that received the form, Groves said there are several pushes for participation beyond the first mailing of the form.
In early April, a second form, distinguishable but with the same questions, will be mailed to households that are yet to return the original. Later still, census workers will be sent to households that have not responded to the second mailing.
While returning the form costs Americans 44 cents (the price of a stamp), Groves noted that sending a census worker to collect information costs the government about $60.
Why all the extra work?
“The purpose is to be as inclusive as possible,” he said.
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)