November 24, 2009 | Original Article

EDITORIAL: Accurate census count is vital to all who live here

'Undercounting' costs region much in government funding.

Published online on Sunday, Nov. 22, 2009

The federal government is preparing to conduct the census that is required every 10 years by the U.S. Constitution. The count technically takes place on April 1, which is Census Day. Every person living in our country is supposed to be counted through a mail questionnaire or by in-person interviews with census takers.

The census is particularly crucial in the San Joaquin Valley because so many people living here are not counted. Some are homeless, others have privacy concerns and many don't understand the importance of the census and fail to fill out the forms. Large immigrant communities also tend to be undercounted, according to census experts.

Fresno County has been labeled one of the nation's most difficult to count regions because of its demographics.

This "undercount" costs the region money because government funding is apportioned by population, and the census will lock in this funding formula for 10 years until the next census. This is money for schools, hospitals, roads and other programs.

Each person counted is worth at least $1,000 annually in federal funds, so a large undercount can cost local governments significant sums. That total isn't even counting state funding, which also is apportioned by population.

The census also affects political representation because congressional seats and state legislative seats are determined on the basis of population.

The city of Fresno and several community groups have begun a campaign to get an accurate count of residents. They understand the importance of the census count to the region, and will be conducting educational efforts to get people to participate in the census.

We should all participate in the 2010 census and encourage our neighbors to be counted.

The stakes also are high for California. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says the state may lose a congressional seat after next year's census. That would be a first in California's 159-year history.

But in addition to the undercount problem, the 2010 census faces political challenges.

At one extreme is Sen. David Vitter, R-Louisiana. Just months before the 10-question census is to be sent to every residence in the country, he tried to cut off all funding unless a question on citizenship is added. The Senate wisely killed Vitter's proposal.

Vitter believes that noncitizens should not be included in the census for the purposes of determining representation in Congress.

The Constitution is clear on this issue: "Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State." There's no mention of citizenship.

That's the way it has been done since the 1790 census. Constitutional scholars across the political spectrum agree that if you want to exclude noncitizens for the purposes of reapportionment, you must amend the Constitution.

At the other extreme is the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, which is telling people to boycott the census. They believe it asks people "to step out of the shadows, be counted for political and economic purposes which they do not benefit from at all -- and then to return to the shadows of discrimination and racial intolerance."

They want Congress to first pass comprehensive immigration reform to create a path to citizenship: "Only after this legislative task is accomplished, then a complete and accurate count of all the American population is achievable."

Both of these extremes are counterproductive. This nation needs to have a debate on immigration policy and resolve issues long left untouched. But undermining the census is the wrong way to push that debate forward.

Put politics aside and let's count everyone in our country.