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Summary: Barriers and Concerns

The Concerns of the Hard-to-Count Communities

This document, using the words of the participants of the Undercount Summit and the Hispanic Federation, briefly summarizes the barriers, concerns and solutions the participants have shared with the Census Monitoring Board.

This summary is organized into three discussions: Barriers, Concerns, and Solutions.  “Barriers” provides a sense of what keeps people from answering a census questionnaire and what those reasons may be.  “Concerns” illustrates the actual link between the barrier and the census forms that will not be completed in hard-to-count neighborhoods and “Solutions” presents some of the innovative and common sense methods states, cities and organizations will use to encourage participation in Census 2000.


The first panel of the Undercount Summit, Isolated Communities: Language, Fear and Confidentiality, was a discussion of the basic elements of reluctance regarding the census: fear and isolation.  People living in neighborhoods with little or no positive contact with government are highly suspicious of sharing “private” information with anyone from the government and actually fear what might become of their information and themselves if they answer the census questionnaire.   Participants at the Summit and the Hispanic Federation Forum indicated that people just do not trust that their information will not be shared with another government agency—such as Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and other agencies.  Isolation, including linguistic isolation, alienates residents from the message of the census’ importance.

As the Summit and Forum participants consistently identified fear, mistrust and isolation as the leading barriers in hard-to-count neighborhoods, the lack of a strategy meeting these barriers was also pointed out.  These barriers will directly affect the success of the Census 2000 questionnaire response and non-response follow-up efforts.

Fear and Mistrust

Often in hard-to-count communities, any efforts by the government are viewed with suspicion and directly affect the level of cooperation the Census Bureau may receive in Census 2000.

Undercount Summit

  • “In Indian country there’s a vast number of reasons, particularly the primary reason is that the government has made many promises to my people and broken every one of them.  That’s reason enough for any human being to distrust any federal agent.”
    Chairman Apesanahkwat, Tribal Leader, Menominee Reservation, WI

  • “Some of our basic fears are the unknowns of where the information is going to go…who all will receive various aspects of it…”
    Shahshak Levi-Nawls, Resident and Community Activist, Robert Taylor Homes, Chicago, IL

  • “… if INS is walking behind, or in front of, any of your census takers, those immigrants who may be here legally or illegally are gone. … And I have had past experiences with INS walking in the door immediately after an enumerator and that’s the end of counting anything.”
    The Honorable Carol Roberts, Commissioner, Palm Beach County, FL
Hispanic Federation Forum
  • “I cannot stress enough to the Census Monitoring Board today how important it is to diffuse this fear by getting across a clear message of confidentiality.  This obviously won’t solve all of our undercount problems in New York, but it will make a difference.”
    Herbert Berman, Council Member, New York, NY

  • “There is a big distrust of big government, and that being rightly so with the immigrant community.”

    “Again, just the fear is enormous when we talk about people knocking on doors or receiving forms which they have to submit…. I think the important message is, and what I would like to bring here, is that it is important to reach out to our organizations, who hold the trust in the community.”
    Michael Amezquita, Executive Director, Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigration Rights, New York, NY

  • “…all the outreach doesn’t overcome those other barriers.  I think that this is particularly true for the immigrant population.  You can stand on your head and tell people that it is safe, and frankly, you [Census Bureau] can’t tell people that it is safe, which is the whole reason for inaccurate counting, so that we can finally break away from a lot of the problems and counteract that particular issue.”
    Margie McHugh, Executive Director, New York Immigrant Coalition

Isolation, whether geographic, cultural, or linguistic, reduces the ability and willingness of hard-to-count communities to participate in Census 2000.

Undercount Summit
  • “Colonias residents face geographic, social and economic isolation aggravated by illiteracy and a limited understanding of the workings of the larger community.”
    Larry Rincones, Regional Director, Texas A & M Colonias Program

  • “Street and building lights are turned off sometimes by gang members.  When the elevators do not work, you could conceivably walk up 16 flights of dark dirty stairs…Given these conditions, who wouldn’t experience fear, isolation and despair.  Given its reputation, census takers may even experience doubt about entering these building to count the number of family members…”
    Gwendolyn Long, Principal, Farren Fine Arts Elementary School, Chicago, IL
Hispanic Federation Forum
  • “The largest influence and the biggest problem affecting this community happens to be limited English proficiency.”
    The Honorable Roberto Ramirez, Assembly Member, New York, NY

Most of the concerns expressed during the Undercount Summit and the Hispanic Federation Forum were directly related to the barriers of fear and isolation.  These concerns, as they were defined and discussed throughout all of the panels, illustrate the need for the Census Bureau to re-evaluate their current strategies and to acknowledge the barriers of hard-to-count communities.  

Many of these concerns took the form of recommendations that the Census Bureau should consider.


The enumerators are the Census Bureau’s infantry units.  An enumerator is the individual responsible for knocking on the door of a house and completing the census questionnaire for a household that did not return the census questionnaire.  

Cultural sensitivity—an enumerator that looks and sounds like the people on the other side of the door—is one of the most basic requirements in hard-to-count communities.  Without cultural sensitivity, the enumerators are unlikely to be able to complete their task.

Undercount Summit
  • “No one is going to convince Indians that they should be counted except Indians.”

    “I have an eighth grade education myself personally.  My people have, on average, less than the eighth grade.  But we have always known how many Indians were on that reservation…If you want to know how many Indians are there, we can tell you.  You don’t need no degree to do that.”
    Chairman Apesanahkwat

  • “I believe that there is not enough emphasis being placed on are we matching up the right enumerator for the areas that we need to, especially focusing on the hard-to-count…. So you can’t just overlook the fact that who you’re going to have knock on the door has to be somebody that looks like the person that’s living there.  And speak the language.  If you don’t even have that as a capability, it’s not going to work.”
    Ana Sol Gutierrez, President, Casa de Maryland, Inc., Silver Spring, MD

  • “They may not be the people that you socialize with every day but those folks need to be the enumerators, the folks that know these people on the street by their first names and have already developed a sense of trust.”
    Bill Bowen, former Director, Salvation Army, Cleveland, OH

  • “We are not going to entrust our private lives to strangers.  Therefore, strangers will not be allowed to come into Robert Taylor Homes.”
    Tyrone Galtney, Resident and Community Activist, Robert Taylor Homes, Chicago, IL

  • “Just for a point of reference, the FBI has a two-year removal of their qualifications for those who are fluent in Spanish. If the FBI can do it, this panel can give some consideration.”
    Bud McTaggart, Executive Assistant, AFL-CIO Cleveland, OH
Hispanic Federation Forum
  • “This leads to another major issue that we wanted to address, which is the issue of hiring bilingual personnel.  The Census Bureau has come out with a citizenship neutral policy.  Guess what?  If you are not on the 51 Allied nation list, you are going to have a problem getting hired…. It excludes India, China, Taiwan and a lot of the bilingual personnel.  That is something that we really need to get the Census Bureau to really [be] aggressively hiring bilingual people in our community.”
    Margaret Chin, Executive Director, Asian Americans for Equality, New York, NY

  • “My big worry is that we don’t really have a plan….  So, it seems to me now that we are still in the very broad brush strokes where we are talking about how diverse the population is, and about where the target neighborhoods are, but we are still not really talking about down at the deepest community levels about how we are actually going to get people in those areas.”
    Margie McHugh
INS and Enforcement Actions

Certain enforcement actions, considered punitive, have a chilling effect on census cooperation because they disrupt and create a wave of fear throughout the community.

Undercount Summit
  • “Because of the negative impact that INS enforcement activities will have on the trust of immigrant communities during the Census 2000 and to ensure a fair and open participation in the census, we strongly urge you to recommend the suspension of INS enforcement activities for the year 2000 to ensure that immigrant communities feel safe talking to the government representative during the entire census process.”
    Benito Juarez, Coordinator, Houston Immigration and Refugee Coalition, Houston, TX

  • “We have to remove all the ideas or concepts of punitive action being taken no matter whether it’s the INS or a landlord or a housing authority or the police or anyone.”
    Bill Bowen
Hispanic Federation Forum
  • “Also the issue of addressing their concerns about the INS.  I was recently among the Regional Council for Immigrant Head Start.  That was a big concern of that population, that they do not trust the INS and what is going to happen with the information that they get from the parents.  They would be willing to be third parties if they knew we addressed those concerns, that they would not be in some way helping the INS.”
    Elba Montalvo, Executive Director, Hispanic Committee on Children and Families
Adequate Materials for Hard-to-Count Areas, Especially in Spanish

Inadequate or unavailable materials make cooperation and partnership with the Census Bureau difficult.  Specifically, for hard-to-count neighborhoods, materials for schools and language specific materials are important in Census 2000.

Undercount Summit
  • “Make sure the regional centers distribute the literature in a timely fashion to all schools including those of us who have known an undercount in previous years.”
    Gwendolyn Long

  • “A lack of census fact sheets and promotional materials needed by partnership specialists for outreach education efforts.  A lack of census fact sheets in other languages, especially Spanish, that are needed in the community.”
    Anna Núñez, Census 2000 Coordinator, City of Houston, TX
Hispanic Federation Forum
  • “In the 1990 census, over 64 percent of the Asian population stated that they do not speak English proficiently, so that is almost two thirds of the population.  The Asian population is growing, and as the new population is adding, for example in the different communities, they definitely need information in their language.”

    “One of the things that we have also been pushing on is that the government is spending all this money on this national advertising campaign.  When we first saw the trailer, we questioned how come the language program was not even mentioned in this huge advertising campaign that is going to reach all the sectors.  The are going to do it in all languages, and I saw this piece in Chinese, but there was no mention about there is going to be Chinese assistance available by the questionnaires or in the information…”

    “I mentioned before you should be getting bilingual information.  Voter guides that will be coming to all the households and are in Spanish and in English.  There is a paragraph, if you want Chinese, you can call in for it.  Also like the information when you register to vote, the Board of Elections now sends out stuff in three languages.”
    Margaret Chin

The Lack of Spanish Language Questionnaire

Not sending a Spanish-language questionnaire to the neighborhoods that are exclusively Spanish speaking was consistently cited as a major impediment for these communities.

Undercount Summit
  • “We believe that instead of sending this form in English to Spanish speakers, they should send a form in Spanish. So in that way people will be able to understand better what it is about and feel more confident in filling out and participating in the census”
    Benito Juarez

  • “A lack of census forms in Spanish.  This is especially critical.  Many people are unaware of the fact that in order to receive a census questionnaire in Spanish, they must first respond to a letter [in English] that will be mailed to them, to their home in March.  If they do not respond to this form, they will not receive a census questionnaire in Spanish.”

    “I would, again, respectfully request of whoever can affect change if the recognition was done in 1992 as to the specific challenge affecting the Latino community that, again, the inclusion of additional forms in Spanish is very critical for an accurate count.”
    Anna Núñez
Hispanic Federation Forum
  • “But the problem is how are you going to get a hold of that questionnaire?  When we first pushed for it with the advisory committee, we thought well technically, they took the form and mailed it to the Asians here in New York City.  We get the voter’s guide in English and Spanish, and if you want a Chinese one, there is a phone number you can call?  Guess what?  Technically, it could be done.  After all the discussion and everything, it came down to the pre-Census letter…. Because in order to do it [obtain a Spanish questionnaire], they have got turn the English letter over to the back and find their languages and make a check mark and send it back.”

    “The request form, it is sent out in English.  One of the things that we presented and that I suggested, minimally is to have something on the envelope that could alert people that there is something in there that is in their own language.”
    Margaret Chin

  • “The fact is you can’t get it right, because somebody is going to think it is wrong.  But the paralysis is not to do anything.  Give it a try and bear some of the heat for doing it.  We deal with this all time when we send out things bilingually.  Somebody gets offended, but you can’t get it 100 percent right. You just have to do as much as you can.  Most people understand that we live in a multicultural town, a multicultural country, and they are not offended.  So just as much saturation as possible.  More in this is better.  We come into this problem all the time, where we learn that one of our parishes now has added a service in another language, and we didn’t send them that because on our previous list, it wasn’t there.  Each weekend, mass is celebrated in 50 different languages in our parishes.  It is never four or five.  It is 50 different languages.  You can’t get it 100 percent right, but more is better in this situation.”
    Father Kevin Sullivan, Chief Operating Officer, The Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York City
Remove Barriers to Hiring

Hiring tests, application forms, and English proficiency exams may have the effect of screening out the very members of the American family who should be hired to count their communities in Census 2000.  

Undercount Summit
  • “If you have to take the enumerators test or application and throw it out the window, that’s what you’re going to have to do.  And you’re going to have to do that with a lot of these populations.  Perhaps the enumerator that you need the most is the one who can’t read the application for the enumerator test.”
    Bill Bowen

  • “Not only do you have to pass that test in Spanish, you have to be able to pass an English proficiency test because the training is done in English, not in Spanish even though these persons would be required to work in Spanish dominant areas.”
    Anna Núñez

  • “So I believe that you need to alter the test not only for minorities, not only for perhaps those who have a problem with the reading and the writing, but I think you need to alter the test and not make it a barrier, but make it rather something that allows people to participate.”
    The Honorable Carol Roberts
A Profile of the Hard-to-Count: Robert Taylor Homes

At the end of the “State Street Corridor” in Chicago—four miles of densely populated low-income, majority African-American, public housing, stands Robert Taylor Homes. Built between 1959 and 1961, Robert Taylor Homes is the nation’s largest housing project.  At it’s peak occupancy in 1964, there were 26,946 authorized residents living in the 28 sixteen story buildings and 4300 housing units.    

According to the Chicago Housing Authority, of the 7689 current residents of Robert Taylor Homes 99.9 percent are African-American and 84 percent earn less than $10,000 a year.

Robert Taylor Homes presents several challenges for Census 2000.  The Census Bureau must employ enough enumerators who are willing to physically do the work and who understand the culture of the residents living in Robert Taylor Homes.  In the extreme case, an enumerator must be willing to enter a gang-controlled apartment building and climb sixteen darkened flights of stairs to knock on a door to talk with a person, who is suspicious of the government and is living with unauthorized residents, and get them to answer the census questionnaire.  Additionally, the Census Bureau must find reliable partners who can explain confidentiality and the purpose of the census to the residents of Robert Taylor.

Robert Taylor Homes was severely undercounted in the 1990 census. In 1990, the census count in the census tracts comprising Robert Taylor Homes indicated 8787 persons.  The adjusted census would have only added 673 persons to that count.  Yet, the Chicago Housing Authority’s Statistical Profile for 1991 estimated a population of 12,320 in Robert Taylor Homes—3500 more persons that the census count.  The census and the adjustment both reflect a substantial undercount in the Robert Taylor Homes community.

Welfare Waiver

Granting a “waiver,” an “exclusion” or an “exemption” for earnings derived from temporary census employment is important for hard-to-count neighborhoods.

Undercount Summit
  • “We need to say to the government to make sure that one of our enumerators are our welfare recipients from the housing project that there is a waiver that is given so that they are not penalized for this short-term job that they’re doing for the benefit of the country.”
    Gwendolyn Long

  • “It’s paramount to getting facilitators and enumerators, and that is in order to facilitate neighborhood hiring, income derived from being census takers should not be counted towards the ceilings for Food Stamps, public housing, and other social services.  If it does, you eliminate a great source of accomplishing this.”
    Bud McTaggart