What makes the 2010 Census critical to San Francisco

The logo on one of the buses in the Portrait of America Road Tour parked in front of City Hall -- By Martina Castro, 1/4/10

It’s the year of the Tiger. It’s also the year of the first African World Cup, and, if you haven’t heard by now, it’s the year of the census.

Last week, the US Census Bureau launched a road tour that is part of the largest civic outreach campaign in U.S. history. Thirteen vehicles will travel across the country to spread the word about the census. The Census Bureau will start mailing out the questionnaires on March 15th.

KALW’s Martina Castro was at the kickoff event at San Francisco’s City Hall, where she learned why it’s so critical that the city get an accurate census count this time around.

CORRECTION: The audio version of this story mistakenly states the census questionnaires will be sent out on March 1st.  The correct date is March 15th.

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ANDREA SHORTER: Good morning San Francisco!

MARTINA CASTRO: A multicultural crowd of several dozen people is gathered around a mic on the steps of City Hall. The group was purposefully assembled to visually represent the tapestry of diversity that is San Francisco. Census workers, local politicians, and community leaders are uniting here to deliver a common message.

SHORTER: Look at us! This is the San Francisco that I love, the diversity and the greatness of this city must be counted, individual by individual.

Andrea Shorter is the co-chair of the Complete Count Committee. And the diversity she’s talking about is what makes San Francisco a logical site to kick off the Portrait of America Road Tour, meant to raise awareness around the importance of the 2010 census.

DAVID CHIU: we are a city that is difficult to count, because over a third of our city has come from another country, nearly half of our city speaks a language other than English in their home.

That’s San Francisco Board of Supervisors President David Chiu. He says there are Lasting consequences to an inaccurate census, consequences San Francisco has had to deal with for the past decade.

CHIU: In the Census 2000, San Francisco was undercounted by 100,000 residents. That cost our city 30 million dollars a year, it cost our city 300 million dollars over the past decade. We are going to make sure that that doesn’t happen again.

So the city of San Francisco and the US Census Bureau have launched an unprecedented campaign to make sure everyone is counted this year. Sonny Le is a spokesperson for the US Census Bureau:

SONNY LE: Our communications budget for 2000 was about 146 million dollars. For 2010 census we are looking at about 340 million dollars, so its huge. So in many ways the federal government has stepped up to the plate, understanding the many economic difficulties people are facing now.

Nearly 160 agencies in San Francisco receive federal funds through census data, programs such as Head Start, and WIC, or Women, Infant and Children, which targets poor pregnant women and recent mothers. But Le says it’s about more than just funding programs targeting the needy:

LE: The money is also allocated to the most fundamental everyday services, emergency services, fire management, all of that requires census data. Not to mention our congressional delegation, apportionment needs census data, redistricting needs census data.

CASTRO: That's a lot.

LE: It's a lot riding on it!

That’s why the census bureau is improving upon the mistakes made in the past. The questionnaire is much simpler this year, only ten questions, and they are available in six languages: Russian, Spanish, English, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean. Also, the Census Bureau is aware that undocumented immigrants were among the hardest to count in 2000 because of their fear of handing personal information to the federal government. At the press conference, Supervisor David Campos addressed that concern head on:

DAVID CAMPOS: There is no risk for any person that lives in this city to be counted in the census. And it is very important for all communities, and I represent the mission and in the mission we have a segment of the community that is undocumented, they need to know that there is no reason for them to be afraid to come forward.

And just in case people didn’t get it in English:

CAMPOS: A la communidad imigrante en san Francisco, es muy important entender....

EVA MARTINEZ: I think there are some populations which is obvious why they would be fearful.

Eva Martinez is executive director of Accion Latina, publisher of the bilingual newspaper El Tecolote in San Francisco’s Mission District. Accion Latina is one of San Francisco's community-based organizations that received grant money to help the census bureau with outreach. This is the first time the bureau has enlisted the help of community groups to reach hard to count communities, such as immigrants, the homeless, and the people who are breaking tenancy laws.

MARTINEZ: They know that we work here day in day out, we are the ones the people on the streets know so we are the best ones to get the message out.

And they have innovative ways of spreading that message.

MARTINEZ: We are going to do a photo novela in the pages of el Tecolote, using people on the street from the neighborhood to address some of the main concerns that people have about filling out the form.

Martinez is also speaking out against a potential boycott of the census in the latino community, suggested last year by some religious latino leaders as a way to push for immigration reform. Martinez says that the US census is not the place to wage that battle.

MARTINEZ: We all want and we definitely need a just immigration policy, but to do it this way, to boycott this count that brings funding to the communities that need it the most, is not the way to go.  It's like shooting yourself in the foot in order to take a political stand.

Back on the steps of City Hall, Sonny Le isn’t surprised that the census is stirring up some controversy.

LE: You know one of the things about the census is that it is a political process for a lot of people, so this is a political fight, and it’s a battle that’s waged outside the census bureau. We should be a boring agency collecting data, that’s it.

That said, the 2010 census has adopted some controversial policies. It's offering gay couples the chance to mark themselves as “married,” and is offering African Americans the option to identify as “negro”, added for older black people who may still use the term. This has outraged some in the African American community, who say the term is offensive and outdated. As census bureau spokesperson Sonny Le says, it's all part of the evolution of an historic agency.

LE: The Census Bureau is a premier data-collecting agency in the world, since 1790 folks.

And the way this census is utilizing technology is pure 21st century. Census workers are using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, MySpace, and Flickr to get the word out about the census, and for the first time, they're also using hand-held GPS technology so they can update address databases and increase efficiency as they go home by home counting residents.

In San Francisco, I’m Martina Castro for Crosscurrents.