Make something mandatory and there will be people who will do whatever they can to avoid it. Make it personal and they’ll stand in line to wait for their turn.
That’s the philosophy behind this year’s census. For the last few months, workers have been trying to make the census intensely personal for those who are historically undercounted.
As always, their goal is to get every single human being in the country to fill out the form, which has been made simpler than ever. But this time, they think they have a strategy that will significantly improve their count rate.
Schenectady has taken the goal to heart. Many local politicians believe the city was vastly undercounted in 2000, and they also believe that recent surveys, run by the Census Bureau to get population estimates, badly undercounted the number of Guyanese immigrants.
So they are pulling out all the stops.
They have crafted sales pitches tailored specifically to each undercounted group, from the homeless to the illegal immigrants to the few rural residents who want to refuse the census on grounds of opposing government in general.
Those who want to “spite the man” get Charles Leoni’s dose of persuasion.
“To have the misguided idea that you ‘spite the man’ by hiding yourself and not getting counted, it’s totally counterproductive,” he said. “If you want to have a protest against the industrial military complex, you can do that. If you want to protest the bank bailouts, you can do that. But this is the one thing that is actually worthwhile.”
Leoni spent the last year recording addresses in Duanesburg for the census so that forms are sent to occupied houses. He took the opportunity to talk up the census as well.
Every sales pitch starts with the same foundation: for every person who is not counted, the state loses $1,900 in federal funds each year. Over 10 years, that adds up to $19,000 per person.
Multiply that by the number of uncounted residents, Leoni tells people. “That amounts, even to Washington standards, to pretty big money.”
And it can be used for the things that undercounted groups desperately need.
The Census Bureau has developed a sales pitch for migrant workers, for example, that emphasizes how local governments use the data to decide where to build hospitals and schools, add English-language classes and create or expand other programs to help their growing population.
But the government will only do that if it knows how big the population is, officials warn.
Their pitch urges migrants to fill out the census “because it can help them realize the dream of a better life for themselves and their families. They came to this country in search of a better life and have worked hard to achieve it.”
Many in Schenectady don’t realize that the area is home to migrant workers on local farms during the harvest season and, sometimes, at Saratoga Race Course during the racing season.
The rest of the year, many local migrant workers live here in abject poverty. Some turn to Bethesda House for help — the agency serves the mentally ill, indigent and homeless.
But Executive Director Margaret Anderton has developed such a level of trust with her clients that she hasn’t needed to use the census pitches to persuade people to fill out the form. They’re willing to do so — if it’s safe.
“We assure people of confidentiality,” Anderton said. “There’s women in domestic violence situations. They don’t want to give out information about where they’re living.”
Her agency will also help census workers find the abandoned buildings, campsites and other hiding spots that many homeless use for shelter. Among those homeless are illegal immigrants who were nervous about Bethesda House bringing federal agents to their door.
“We know where people who come here for seasonal work at the track or the orchards, we know where they stay,” Anderton said. “The concerns were, ‘What if I have a warrant out for me? What if I’m an illegal immigrant?’
“We said, ‘How long have you been coming here? Have we misled you before?’ There’s a trust factor here.”
She is helping census workers find those clients but she expects that she won’t have to visit many of them.
“A lot of them come to us because they use us for showers,” she said.
If she’s done her job well, they will go stand in line — voluntarily — to fill out the form.
The census worker last time was the hub of activity in the house, she said.
“He was the most popular guy here,” Anderton said. “There was always a line of people around his table. He knew everyone and he could say, ‘OK, you’ve already filled it out, but it’s OK, you can hang out here with us anyway.’ ”
Some groups are struggling to come up with good sales pitches because their demographic has no strong reason to oppose the census but is historically undercounted.
Some Guyanese, for example, distrust their government — but many say they came here because they trust the U.S. So why are they undercounted?
Guyanese-American Association President John Mootooveren isn’t sure, so he’s sticking to the simple argument that they should fill out the form to guarantee that federal aid of $1,900 per person. It’s not yet clear whether that sales pitch will be effective, but he has marshalled Guyanese to go door-to-door to talk it up to every former resident of Guyana.
Local census spokesman David Mance said for such groups, those who don’t need to be reassured about confidentiality or talked into supporting a government program, the best sales pitch is simply an explanation of why the census is important.
“It’s about local fire departments. It’s about local school funding,” he said. “They need to feel there’s a purpose, a value to it that relates back to them and their family.”
The Hispanic Outreach Services group is following that tack with legal Hispanic residents who are often undercounted but have no particular reason to avoid the census.
Rather than ask them to do the right thing just to help their state get funds, Executive Director Elaine Escobales asks them to think about their own futures.
“When we go to open small businesses, if lenders don’t think there’s enough of a market to support it, they probably won’t lend,” she says.
Don’t want to open a small business? Escobales has an answer for that, too.
If her Hispanic clients want to purchase Hispanic products, they’ll need to find a store that sells them — and if it appears from the census that only a small group of Hispanics live here, why would the business cater to them?
“It’s important for them to be counted,” she said. “We are under-represented now.”
She’s also using the “trust factor” at Hispanic Outreach Services to convince illegal immigrants to fill out the form. Despite her promises that census data is not given to immigration services or any other governmental agency, some illegal immigrants aren’t ready to risk their home and livelihood just to fill out a form.
“That’s the biggest challenge we have,” she said. “We’re working to gain their trust.”
She expects that this year’s effort will be far more successful than in 2000, when the Census Bureau estimated that more than 209,000 New Yorkers were not counted, particularly illegal immigrants, people with low income and limited education, the unemployed, migrant workers, households headed by females with young children, people who do not speak English well and homeless people.
“We’re going to be able to improve those numbers,” Escobales said.
Categories: Schenectady County