February 8, 2010 | Atlanta Journal-Constitution | Original Article

Census outreach to hard-to-count groups ratchets up

Koreans and Vietnamese descended upon Doraville for a chance Tuesday to land one of the coveted, $18.45-an-hour census-taking jobs.

An hour later, along Buford Highway, Hispanic leaders implored business owners to prod their customers into participating in the all-important census.

And downtown, in midafternoon, Mayor Kasim Reed endorsed a “census blitz” across Atlanta on April 10.

With a month to go before the federal government begins tabulating the nation’s 309 million residents, Atlanta area officials are ratcheting up their efforts to reach the region’s hard-to-count constituencies.

Georgia is a laggard when it comes to the crucial task of claiming its fair share of the country’s census-based largess, $400 billion doled out annually by Washington for roads, Medicaid and more. Much of the blame lies with low counts of immigrants and other hard-to-reach groups.

Yet critics this year also say the state’s outreach is inadequate or unfriendly to newcomers, African-Americans and rural Georgians. The Legislature, for example, hasn’t appropriated a penny to help get-out-the-count efforts. Florida budgeted $2.1 million.

And some members of Gov. Sonny Perdue’s statewide census committee aren’t considered welcoming toward undocumented immigrants who are as legally entitled to be counted as Perdue himself.

“Language is a huge barrier for many Asians in Georgia, and there’s generally a fear and distrust of the government,” said Helen Kim, advocacy director for the Doraville-based Center for Pan Asian Community Services Inc. “But from the treetops down to the grass roots, we have been very active.”

The U.S. Census Bureau will mail letters to millions of American households in mid-March. Residents are supposed to fill out the census questionnaires -- How many people live here? Age? Education? Income? -- and return by post to the feds.

The 2000 census failed to count 123,000 Georgians, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, resulting in nearly $210 million in lost federal money over a 10-year period. In all, only 65 percent of Georgians were counted in 2000, two percentage points below the national average.

In Atlanta, a predominantly African-American city in 2000, the count dropped below 60 percent, according to Diana Schwartz, a U.S. Census Bureau spokeswoman. Young black men and single mothers don’t proportionately fill out the census, she added.

“There’s a blend of apathy and fear,” Schwartz said, "but our message to them is that their families stand to lose if they’re not counted.”

The Census Bureau doesn't track count by ethnicity. But Schwartz says the percentage of Hispanics and Asians counted in 2000 dipped lower than African-Americans and most other groups.

Jerry Gonzalez, who heads the Georgia Latino Complete Count Committee, said the size and permanence of the state’s Hispanic population today will translate into a strong 2010 count.

“In 2000, the population was less established,” he said. “Now, we have deep roots in the communities. We have more Latino churches, nonprofit groups and a very large Spanish-language media.”

Gonzalez tallies 110 civic, nonprofit and church groups statewide working to get out the Hispanic count. His committee has distributed 110,000 “fotonovelas” -- informational comic books -- and more than 5,000 posters encouraging census participation.

Spanish radio, TV and newspapers in Atlanta, Gainesville and Savannah have blanketed the airwaves with census information. Schoolchildren have produced why-the-census-is-important essays and artwork.

Gonzalez spends much time convincing undocumented Hispanics -- who fear that any contact with the government could lead to deportation -- that their census information is confidential and can’t be shared with other federal agencies.

The Asian community works equally hard to assuage similar fears. Kim said many immigrants come from China, Vietnam and Cambodia -- repressive countries where the government is feared.

To overcome the mistrust, the Asian committee has tailored its outreach to 15 different communities, including Afghans, Koreans, Indonesians, Bhutanese and Hmong. Thousands of calendars, postcards and refrigerator magnets extolling the census have been distributed.

Vietnamese radio and Korean preachers encourage participation. Burmese refugees in Clarkston meet weekly at various apartment complexes to review the census. Census officials will visit upcoming Lunar New Year celebrations in Norcross and Chamblee.

Still, more needs to be done, census activists say, particularly at the state level.

“More active participation from the leadership in the state would be a benefit to the entire state, especially considering the amount of money Georgia needs for education in light of budget cuts," Schwartz said.

Saralyn Stafford, a special assistant with the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, one of two agencies coordinating census outreach, said the state is relying heavily on local voluntary committees to get the word out. Business, church and government leaders, too, have been enlisted.

“It’s a shame we’re in such a tough budget year while the census is going on, but I really can’t be too critical because a lot of other very, very important [agencies] are having their budgets cut,” Stafford said. “We’re getting contact through our local committees. It’s just taking us a little while.”

Gonzalez and other community organizers also fault Perdue for appointing state committee members, including Cobb Sheriff Neil Warren, who are perceived as anti-immigrant. Cobb and Gwinnett counties, home to large Hispanic populations, allow their jailers to turn over illegal immigrants to the federal government for possible deportation.

Warren, in a statement, said the committee has had “no discussion regarding the exclusion of any individuals that the census is required by law to collect.”

Kim, with the Pan Asian center, said a robust immigrant count depends upon community leaders.

“The community is so diverse that there’s no way to get everyone counted,” she said. “But people will feel better if they hear the message from people they trust. Success really rides on the backs of the community members doing all the work.”