Sunday, October 11, 2009

Creativity for the Count

By Cheryl Staats, Research Assistant at the Kirwan Institute

As 2009 speeds to a close, the U.S. Census Bureau is gearing up for its constitutionally-mandated decennial count of everyone living in the United States. Although the Census Bureau takes extraordinary care to ensure that all people are counted (even staging dress rehearsals), this remarkably complex task historically results in an undercount of marginalized populations. Contributing to the undercount are undocumented immigrants who often are reticent to participate, erroneously fearing that personal information disclosed on census forms may lead to deportation or other adverse legal ramifications. Awareness of undercounts has often prompted census officials to statistically modify previous counts, thus offering adjusted data.

With Census Bureau Director Robert Groves recently claiming that “there’ll be no adjustment of this census,” the agency’s 2010 outreach includes some novel tactics to raise awareness of the census and allay respondents’ fears. To reach Latinos, the Census Bureau has teamed up with the producers of Más Sabe el Diablo (“The Devil Knows Best”), a telenovela (soap opera) on the Telemundo network, to create a storyline involving a character who applies to work for the U.S. Census Bureau. Factual information meant to the reassure the largely Spanish-speaking audience (such as census information being estrictamente confidencial – “strictly confidential”) is communicated through the character Perla Beltrán, who otherwise is intertwined in the genre’s typical fictional sagas. Aurelio Valcarel, an executive producer at Telemundo, asserted, “we’re trying to fight the fear” by including the census-focused plot.

With census data used to allocate more than $400 billion in federal and state funds each year, to influence what community services are offered, and to apportion congressional seats to states, innovative tactics that educate using creative mediums and make respondents less leery about being counted should be applauded. Ultimately, attaining an accurate count is vital to maintaining equitable congressional representation, a hallmark of our nation’s democracy. In the words of the national campaign: Ya es hora. ¡Hágase Contar! - “It’s Time. Make Yourself Count!”

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