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Listening to the Hard-to-Count Neighborhoods

Because of the importance of the census to every state, every city and every person living in America, the Congressional Members of the Census Monitoring Board have made an effort to talk with, not only the Census Bureau, but stakeholders as well.  Over the past year and a half, since the formal organizational meeting of the entire Board on 8 June 1998, the Congressional Members, in the face of resistance on the part of the Census Bureau to release operational details of Census 2000 planning, sought the testimony and perspective of census stakeholders.  These stakeholders, including state and local government officials and community residents from hard-to-count neighborhoods, are the partners on whom the Census Bureau will rely to count the nation’s streets and houses.

The official definition of the colonia, “a residential subdivision lacking essential facilities such as water and wastewater services and paved roads,” only begins to describe life in a colonia.  

Colonias are found in the states along the US-Mexican border—Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas.  Most of the US colonias are in Texas—over 1200 colonias and approximately 300,000 residents. Almost 90 percent of the colonias in Texas are located in Hidalgo, El Paso, Starr, Cameron, Maverick, Webb and Zavala counties—251,032 persons who are 90 percent Hispanic and often recent immigrants.

Cameron Park, one of the oldest colonias and featured on national news programs, has become a “model” colonia.  Due to the advocacy of the community, the roads in Cameron Park are paved, water is available and there are services available in the colonia.  In fact, within the maze of streets there is a community health center, several businesses and a community center.  

Yet, Cameron Park is not illustrative of the main.  Most colonias are like Del Mar Heights, La Paloma, Blanca Juarez, Sunny Side, Huecho, Montana Vista, Rio Bravo and Basham 23.  The residents of these colonias are geographically, culturally and linguistically isolated and struggle to obtain water for their daily needs and to even travel beyond the colonia.  

These colonias are pockets of densely populated, linguistically isolated communities that presented difficulties during the 1990 census and will continue to challenge the Census Bureau in 2000.  

Their experiences working singularly and in cooperation with the Census Bureau are an integral part of the record for Census 2000. The Monitoring Board has created a series of opportunities—forums, “listening tours,” and hearings—for this express purpose.

Listening Tours

The nation’s hard-to-count neighborhoods are the foundation of the differential undercount—hundreds of thousands of people living in low-income, urban, rural and minority communities missed in the census.  Their neighborhoods, approximately 2,700 tracts out of the 62,000 tracts nationwide, should be the focus of the Census Bureau’s efforts to reduce the differential undercount.

The Congressional Members of the Board have made an effort to solicit the opinions, testimonies, and guidance of real persons living in hard-to-count neighborhoods.  These “listening tours” have taken place in Robert Taylor Homes, the nation’s largest single housing project in Chicago; in the Delta and other rural areas of Mississippi; and in several Latino neighborhoods in Houston, including Magnolia Park.  In addition, we directed staff research in other areas, including colonias in South Texas and a native village in Alaska.

The guiding principle of our investigation in the hard-to-count neighborhoods is the belief that as the leaders and residents of these neighborhoods, they know more about their community and, as a result, know better how to ensure people are counted in Census 2000.  Therefore, the purpose of these Listening Tours was to gain an “on-the-ground” perspective regarding the barriers that will hamper the Census Bureau in 2000 in these hard-to-count communities and neighborhoods.  And, more importantly, to discover what specific strategies should be used and what the Census Bureau must do to confront these barriers and to reduce the differential undercount.

By improving the count at the neighborhood level where the undercount occurs, in every building and housing unit—at 4410 S. State Street in Chicago, at Baldwin Street and Edna Avenue in Isola, Mississippi, and at 3800 Lovejoy in Houston—the Census Bureau can reduce the differential undercount.   However, in order to do so, the Census Bureau must amend current practices and allow for flexibility at the local level.  Only through innovation and flexibility at the local level will the Bureau be able to count, in these hard-to-count neighborhoods, where real people are living and where the differential undercount occurs.

The Undercount Summit

Based on the recommendations and the discussions the Board had throughout the country in hard-to-count neighborhoods, the Congressional Members of the Census Monitoring Board created a forum for real people, members of hard-to-count communities, to share their knowledge and their solutions for Census 2000.  This forum was called the Undercount Summit, and was held in Washington, DC, on October 29th 1999.  The Summit brought people and voices, as yet unheard, together to share their expertise on ways to improve Census 2000.  

The participants represented a wide-range of hard-to-count communities—inner city neighborhoods, reservations and remote rural areas.  The representatives included residents, educators, labor unions, social service organizations, community activists, and government.  The Congressional Members believe that the participants’ statements and their expertise represent the best hope for ensuring a more accurate count for Census 2000.

Throughout the Undercount Summit, participants identified barriers and concerns.  They also offered solutions for their communities that could be implemented right now to reduce the differential undercount of low-income, urban, rural and minority communities.  

The Undercount Summit was organized into three panels

  • Isolated Communities: Language, Fear and Confidentiality in Hard-to-Count Neighborhoods
  • How to Count in Hard-to-Count Neighborhoods
  • Partnership: Expectations and Realities
The panelists of Isolated Communities discussed the elements of reluctance and the reasons why people are unwilling to respond to the census.  This panel brought together several residents of hard-to-count communities and several representatives of organizations with crucial roles in those communities, including a school principal.  More importantly, the panelists discussed linguistic isolation and apprehension in their own words.  This panel created an inventory of barriers and concerns that the other panels discussed and then presented innovations and solutions to confront those barriers and concerns.  

The panelists of How to Count in Hard-to-Count Neighborhoods illustrated the ability of local communities, if involved in the census, to provide resources that would help ensure an accurate census.  The panelists represented a range of expertise—from a newspaper publisher to a Complete Count Committee chairperson, from a former director for the Salvation Army with expertise on the homeless in Cleveland, Ohio to the president of an organization that provides support to recent immigrants in the Washington, DC metropolitan area.  The resources, including volunteer positions known as facilitators, were “home-grown” to fit the needs of a particular city, neighborhood or street.

Finally, the Partnership panel illustrated the way in which the Census Bureau could use the concern and willingness of state and local governments to create solutions for their hard-to-count neighborhoods.  

Despite many of the panelists being unfamiliar with the other panelists and the other communities, one theme emerged: the Census Bureau must do more in hard-to-count neighborhoods, current strategies are not enough.

The Hispanic Federation Forum

In addition to the listening tours and to the Undercount Summit, the Congressional Members of the Board participated in a forum organized by the Presidential Members of the Census Monitoring Board and the Hispanic Federation on November 10th 1999 in New York City.  

The Hispanic Federation, an organization of Latino health and human services agencies serving the metropolitan New York City area, created this forum “to discuss strategies to ensure that every New Yorker is counted in the 2000 census.”  According to the president, missed children in the 1990 census were the inspiration for the Federation: “That is why the Hispanic Federation has taken a leadership role in promoting an accurate census.”

The participants of the Forum represented a wide range of services and agencies—including City Council members, the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York City, ALIANZA, and civil rights organizations.  The comments and concerns of these participants, while focused on primarily Latino and Asian immigrant neighborhoods in the dense urban environment of New York City, were consistent with those presented at the Undercount Summit.  These concerns reflected the need for the Census Bureau to do more in hard-to-count neighborhoods.