BY RICHARD SCHACK
A third grader sits in a hallway learning from photocopied pages while a newly settled immigrant searches through a phone book in his new home for someone to explain what he needs to know about taxes. Somewhere in Queens a car tire just blew out in the abyss of a pothole, and garbage cans – stuffed to overflowing – spill trash onto the sidewalk.
It all counts for a better quality of life, but according to Borough President Claire Shulman and the U.S. Census Bureau, Queens has just one more week to get 56 percent of its residents counted. And each person who goes uncounted will means less state and city funding for the borough – for education, road and bridge repair, child care – in the decade to come.
HOW WE DOIN’?
The nationwide objective was to have 63 percent of all census questionnaires mailed in by this week. In Queens, less than 44 percent were in as of presstime, putting the borough below the current actual nation-wide participation level of 53 percent. Since the nation was falling behind, the deadline – which had been April 1 – was extended to April 11.
Once the new deadline passes, enumerators (temporary Census Bureau employees) will visit homes which did not yet return the form and try to help with the process to increase the response numbers.
“The last census undercount cost New York, and Queens, billions of dollars. We can’t let that happen again,” said Jordan Barowitz, spokesperson for Council Speaker Peter Vallone, member of the Council’s Subcommittee on the Census 2000.
“This is not even so much about being counted as it is the boroughs getting their fair share from Washington to keep classes small, fix our roads and bridges, and increase child care,” Barowitz added.
And according to the Barowitz, it is clear that the stakes are high. California allocated $30 million in state funds for their census awareness campaign.
Meanwhile New York State allocated no funding to awareness, but a grassroots effort has the words “U.S. Census” on everything from buses to pins and postage cancellation marks. Local politicians have been calling for awareness in ever increasing numbers as the weeks go by, while civic and immigrant groups have gone door to door to remind their neighbors. Outreach is even underway in homeless shelters.
Still, Queens lags behind and Councilman John Sabini, a member of the city Council’s Subcommittee on the Census 2000, explains “urban areas traditionally lag behind suburban ones in participation, and [we have] a large number of new immigrants who have never before experienced the census.”
Borough President Claire Shulman told the Tribune, “As far as the low numbers, I believe a lot of that can be blamed on people not actually receiving the census forms.” She said that her office has been bombarded with calls by residents who claim their forms never came.
“Also, in Queens there are a large number of three family houses, but oftentimes only the owners and not the other two families in the house receive the forms,” she said. She urged anyone who did not receive their forms to contact the Borough President’s office or find out about the “Be Counted” center in their neighborhood.
In her first State of the Borough Address in the new century, Shulman stressed the need for the 2000 Census to correctly count the number of Queens residents – both immigrant and life-long. Describing it as the key to the future of the borough, she said, “Remember — the resources we receive in Queens depends on the number of people living here.”
COUNTING ON THE IMMIGRANTS
“Considering how bad the undercount was in 1990 and how important the census is this year, more immigrants should be sending in their forms. It’s not that surprising, though, [that they are not]” said Ellen Young, president of the Chinese American Voters Association and executive director of the Flushing Business Association.
“Many [new immigrants] are not used to participating in surveys, and have a mistrust for government. Illegal aliens are afraid of being deported if they send the forms back,” Young explained.
But according to Census 2000 Queens spokesperson Babooram Rambisson, “They have nothing to fear. By law, the Census Bureau cannot share the individual answers it receives with others, including the Immigration and Naturalization Services, welfare agencies, the Internal Revenue Service, courts, police, or the military. Anyone who breaks this law can receive up to five years in prison and $5,000 in fines.”
However, the fear of deportation is not the only problem. Young has organized several Census Service Centers to help immigrants fill out their forms and she has run into a number of other problems with the forms and the process itself. Requests for forms in other languages have not been filled in a timely fashion as the deadline approaches and “race options” simply don’t mix with Queens’ diversity.
Some organizers of the local immigrant communities have voiced concerns that the “race” options on the census forms is confusing in its wording, and the large number of choices will result in some mixed peoples being separated into categories they do not truly belong in.
“What we’re afraid of is that there are so many choices for race that many people of the same race won’t be counted as so,” said New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE) founder Bryan Pu-Folkes. There are dozens of options for ethnic background on the Census forms, and although residents can choose as many of the choices as deemed necessary, they will end up being categorized into one of 10 major ethnic groups.
Rambisson defends the options and breakdowns. “This is the first time people can describe themselves as whatever they want. Both public and private organizations use race, origin, and ancestry information to find areas where groups may need special services and to plan and implement education, housing, health and other programs. For example, a school system might use this information to design cultural activities that reflect the diversity in their community.”
Young concluded that the message which must go out to the immigrant community is this, “The census is not just an obligation for immigrants — it’s our right. As long as we’re using public funding, we have to let the government know who, what, and where we are to get what we truly deserve.”
SITES TO BE COUNTED
The Census Bureau has opened a number of “Be Counted” sites in Queens where un-addressed census forms are available. The sites can be used by anyone, including people who, for some reason, did not receive a questionnaire at home or who were excluded from their household questionnaire. The forms also allow those without conventional housing to complete a questionnaire if they were not counted through other initiatives.
The “Be Counted” sites, which will be open until April 11, are free of charge and are to be found in Queens’ libraries, meeting halls, community centers, and schools. Hours of site availability vary. For more information on “Be Counted” sites and Questionnaire Assistance Centers in your neighborhood, call the Census Bureau’s New York Regional Census Center.
SHOW US THE MONEY
Each year the federal government distributes over $180 billion in federal funds based on what the census says about neighborhoods, according to Rambisson. New York State also uses the figures in its funding calculations, Rambisson added.
Sabini noted that what it all means is, “the few minutes people spend on their census forms can affect their lives for the next 10 years.”
Census numbers help city planners pick the best locations for schools, roads, hospitals, clinics, libraries, playgrounds, bus routes, job training programs, day-care and senior centers. Businesses use census numbers to locate supermarkets and shopping centers, new housing, factories, offices, and facilities like movie theaters and restaurants.
Although individual records are held confidential for 72 years, you can request a certificate from past censuses for use as proof of your age, residence or information which could help qualify you for a pension, establish citizenship, or obtain an inheritance.
Every year since 1790 there has been a U.S. Census, but the tradition of a government counting its people can be traced back through two millenniums through the Biblical story that sent Mary and Joseph back to Bethlehem because Cesar had ordered that everyone be counted.
THE FORM OF THINGS
This year’s “short” forms are the shortest there has been in 180 years.
Five subjects that appeared on the 1990 census forms are now gone from the short version, including things such as the year you last worked, your source of water, and your condominium status.
Five other questions — including marital status, units in your housing structure, number of rooms in your home, value of your home, and your monthly rent – have just been moved from the short version to the “long form” questionnaires.
One out of every six households will randomly receive the long forms which take nearly four times as long to complete, and include questions about a broad range of subjects, from education and ancestry to home heating and grandparents as caregivers.
“They may seem like a hassle,” said Rambisson, “but the long form questionnaires are very important. Community leaders use the forms in deciding neighborhood revitalization, economic development, and improved facilities and services.”
This year Census 2000 questionnaires are available in six different languages, including English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Tagalog, and Vietnamese. And in some more diverse communities of Queens, special questionnaires my be available in additional languages.
The Census Bureau’s New York Regional Census Center can be reached at 212-620-7702/3 or you can visit their website at www.census.gov.
For more information about Census jobs, call he Census toll-free at 1-888-325-7733.