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The 2010 U.S. Census: Who Counts?

October 21, 2009

Every ten years the Census attempts to provide a demographic snapshot—a full count of every man, woman and child in the United States. But while this goal, along with the elimination of any statistically significant margin of error is the Census Bureau’s objective, some people are undoubtedly uncounted, miscounted, or overlooked. In the 2000 Census, the Bureau believes there was an undercount of about 1.2 percent or 3.3 million people.

In the United States, race and ethnicity impact the way we think of ourselves and how we define other groups. And as the 2000 Census made clear, an increasingly diverse country means that responding to some questions is not as easy as simply filling in the "correct" box. But to be counted in next year's census respondents will be asked to provide their name and age and to complete a multiple-choice questionnaire where people will check a box in response to questions of gender, race, ethnicity, and other household information. These boxes are meant to be as straightforward as possible, but it's not so easy.

In the case of Hispanics, once they have checked the box for ethnicity, they are faced with a serious question about race. Yes, I am Hispanic/Latino, but am I White or Black? Asian or American Indian? If you are none of the above to these census terms, there is no "official" race-related box and the only option is to choose “other.” This is one of the reasons why census data is under increasing scrutiny.

Our demographic snapshot is largely taken in a format that is as easy-to-digest as possible. Information will be collected, but the true face of racial politics in America looks very different from the census results. For example, consider the designation of the Latin-American Indian category, which was first reported in the 2000 Census. With approximately 180,000 respondents who identified as both ethnically Hispanic and racially American Indian, this group is currently the third largest Native American group in the United States.

Indigenous advocates have argued that this group likely represents indigenous migrants from Latin America. These may be Mayan refugees who fled civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador, or Andean Otavalos and Quechuas or Mexican indigenous groups who identify as Zapotec, Mixe, Tzonzil, and Tzental. Hispanic groups argue that they should be counted as Hispanic/Latino, while American Indians, in turn, want to exclude them from their category arguing that they do not have the same rights as Native Americans.

The reality is that we do not know for sure how to count them. However, we also know that they lived here in 2000, and assuming they are here again in 2010, this means that at least ten years have passed without accurately counting them. They may now have children who are being raised in the United States or have bought a house or a car, but little information exists about their identity, place of origin or membership to larger groups.

The ten-year Census, mandated by the Constitution, can only tell us so much about the evolving and ever more diverse American identity. However, real political power hangs on this count. A miscount or undercount has implications on the amount of taxes redistributed from the federal government and the way people are represented in Congress. It can also lead to necessary programs being cut or to an overall lack of resources to serve people. As a result, states are spending millions to ensure that their residents are counted. Locally, politicians use Census numbers to redraw districts, reallocate budgets, and review past programs.

Hispanics are among the most undercounted minorities as identified by the Census Bureau. Some conservative senators have attempted to make the accuracy of how Hispanics are counted into a political issue, attempting to use immigration status as a wedge. Census Director Robert Groves has said he is particularly worried that such tensions over immigration will deter people from participating in the count.

Still, the issue of who counts and how we count is critical for obtaining a true demographic snapshot of the United States. We, the "counted" should seriously consider how and what to answer when survey forms are received in early April 2010.

Carlos Yescas is the author of Indigenous Routes: A Framework for Understanding Indigenous Migration (Geneva, IOM: 2008). He is a PhD candidate in Politics at The New School for Social Research in New York City and can be contacted at yescc566@newschool.edu. He researches the U.S. Census, indigenous peoples, race/ethnicity, and Immigration.