As the U.S. Census kicked off in New Haven, Sandra McKinnie offered 9,000 reasons to stand up and be counted.
For every person the 2010 Census overlooks, the area will lose out on $9,000 from the federal government, said McKinnie, a staffer at the Community Action Agency, a local social services agency.
The $9,000 argument is just one strategy McKinnie is using to try to make next year’s census more effective than the one 10 years ago, when the poorest areas of New Haven were vastly underrepresented. She’s working to increase census participation in poor, minority, and immigrant neighborhoods.
McKinnie’s remarks came at Monday’s opening ceremony for the local U.S. Census office at 1 Long Wharf Dr. McKinnie joined Census officials, Mayor John DeStefano, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, and Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz to cut the office’s ceremonial ribbon.
The U.S. Census is a constitutionally mandated population count conducted nationwide every 10 years. The information gathered from the census is used to determine political representation as well as allocation of federal dollars.
That’s why it’s important that everyone be counted accurately during 2010’s 23rd U.S. Census, said DeLauro. Pulling out a pocket-size copy of the Constitution, she provided a brief history lesson.
“Our founding fathers put [the census] right up front,” DeLauro said. She referred to Article One, Section Two of the Constitution, which calls for a census to be conducted every 10 years. And so it has been, for the past 220 years, she said.
For the past 141 years, the country has “counted everyone as a person in full, without the embarrassing stain of the three-fifths compromise,” DeLauro went on. The ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868 ended the rule that slaves would be counted as three-fifths of a person.
DeLauro was the first of several speakers to sound a similar theme: stand up and be counted.
Bysiewicz reiterated the call, with a specific focus on the state’s Latinos. Connecticut has the fastest growing Latino population in the country, she said.
Mayor DeStefano emphasized that New Haven residents should participate in the census “irregardless of their immigration status.” Despite attempts to turn the census into a political tool, the count does not record immigration status, it simply counts all residents of the country.
Census workers will be knocking on doors in all parts of the city, he said. “This work will be done in the illegal apartments of this city, with people who are not here legally,” he said. “Every one of us does mean something.”
When it was her turn to speak, McKinnie led the audience in a simple mnemonic chant: “Ten questions, in ten minutes, in 2010.” The census form has 10 questions.
McKinnie later said she has been using that slogan to remind people to participate in the census. When families come into the Community Action Agency looking for heating assistance, she teaches them the phrase. Now kids sing the phrase to her when they see her, McKinnie said.
She said the Community Action Agency has been trying—through posters and trainings and one-on-one conversations—to increase census participation among the populations it serves.
McKinnie said census response 10 years ago was below 50 percent in West Rock, a neighborhood characterized by housing projects. In nearby Westville, a more affluent neighborhood, over 70 percent of residents were counted, McKinnie said.
That 20 percent difference illustrates that poorer neighborhoods have a lower census participation rate and, as a result, federal money might not go where it’s needed most. “In Westville, how many resources are we really concerned about?” she asked.
“The key is to educate the low-income areas,” McKinnie said. Residents need to know why it’s important that they respond to the census and that census workers won’t be asking about immigrant status. Her message is participate now, or “Don’t sit and complain another 10 years,” McKinnie said.
A U.S. Census map on the wall at the new office indicated that the hardest to reach neighborhoods in 2000 were West Rock, the Hill, Dixwell, Newhallville, and Fair Haven.
George Roebuck (second from right in photo below), manager of the new local census office, said fear causes a low response in those neighborhoods. He said he has been training his staff to inform reluctant participants that census workers are sworn for life not to divulge any personal information they gather. They could face imprisonment or a fine of up to $250,000, he said.
Roebuck said his office is in the midst of hiring the nearly 1,000 census “numerators” he will need to knock on doors in New Haven. Workers get paid $18 per hour and will start hitting the streets in the spring, he said.