As organizing efforts for the 2010 census shift into high gear, the U.S. Census Bureau is paying particular attention to what they say is one of the hardest-to-count segments of the national populace: 18 to 25 year-old people of color, especially young men.
Bureau research published in 2008 and based on census response rates 10 years ago reveals that the populations least likely to be counted are: 1) Economically Disadvantaged, 2) Unattached/Single and 3) Living in High Density Ethnic Enclaves.
"We are dealing with a national phenomenon in terms of which groups are consistently undercounted," says Sonny Le, media specialist at the Seattle Regional Census Center. "We're talking primarily about young adults in the African-American, Latino, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander communities."
For Le and his colleagues, understanding why youth in the country's ethnic communities are consistently undercounted is crucial as they plan ways to increase response rates to the 2010 census questionnaire, which will be mailed out to every residence in the United States and Puerto Rico this March.
Since 1790, the federal government has been constitutionally mandated to conduct the census -- a complete enumeration of the U.S. population -- every 10 years.
One reason for the low response rates, says Le, is perhaps the most obvious: 18 to 25 year-olds now were only children when the last census was conducted. This is their first real experience of the census. They may not know what the census is, let alone how it impacts their communities.
Also, he says, most young adults tend to be unattached, mobile and less likely to have an established home address â€“ in essence, placing them somewhere in between dependency and emancipation decreasing their chance of being counted.
"These are grown men and women now but many still live at home, although unofficially," explains Le. "So when the census arrives in the mailbox, their family might not count them as part of the household anymore."
Making matters worse, he says, is a general mistrust of government that is fostered in part by the negative experiences of a growing number of young people who are involved, or have friends or family involved in the criminal justice system.
If Le is correct, the problem presents a larger challenge to census enumerators than at any previous time in U.S. history. According to a well-publicized 2008 Pew Center report, one in 30 men between the ages of 20 and 34 are behind bars. The number jumps to one in nine for African-Americans in the same age group, and Latino men are now the fastest growing segment of the prison population.
"Unfortunately a big percentage of our young men have been part of the system, and once they're out they don't want to be known, for fear of being racially profiled," says Le. "Or perhaps for fear that Uncle Sam might be keeping tabs on them."
It's an issue that Le says is particularly acute among young men living in public housing, where they may live with partners and children but are legally not supposed to be there, resulting in family members being disinclined to report them on a government questionnaire.
These challenges are amplified in California, where more than 30 percent of the population has been deemed Hard to Count (HTC), a designation derived by the Census Bureau from demographic indicators such as poverty, educational attainment, unemployment, language and housing indicators such as rentals, crowded housing and multi-unit buildings.
By comparison, the percentage of HTC areas across the national population is 17.7 percent.
The dual task confronting Sonny Le and his colleagues within the Census Bureau, then, is convincing communities that the census is not only safe but worth their while.
More than $400 billion in federal funding for health, education, housing, employment and other programs is allocated to regions based on information culled directly from the census. These incentives, however, can be less obvious to young adults who tend to not access services.
"The money may not come to you, but the services may go to your family members, your grandmother, your sisters," says Le. "They have to look beyond themselves, to the greater society."
According to a Brookings Institute study, every Californian counted in the census represents roughly $1,600 in federal assistance programs for the state.
"If you miss 2 million people, it may not seem like a big deal, but in dollars that's a huge amount, says Le. "If you missed 10,000 African-Americans in San Francisco, that's a lot of money lost.
To avoid such a scenario, Census Bureau strategists are employing a multi-faceted approach of targeted advertising, outreach to schools and grassroots community organizing to reach the 18 to 25 year-old demographic.
Shannon Lawrence, a former union organizer in Los Angeles and now a partnership specialist at the Los Angeles Regional Census Center, is an example of how the Census Bureau is utilizing existing grassroots leadership.
"For years my job was to organize and create partnerships with our membership and the community-based organizations, the ecumenical community and government officials,"says Lawrence. "Now it's my job to get them engaged in the census. They trust me. They trust my voice."
Lawrence is one of about 100 partnership specialists working for the Los Angeles region, which serves 25 million people in 19 counties across southern and central California as well as Hawaii. Their job is to facilitate outreach to the communities they come from and know best.
"That is actually the strength of the census itself," says Bernard Pendergrass, a media specialist and a colleague of Lawrence at the Bureau. "These are people who have amazing backgrounds, who know their communities and how to reach them."
Le says the strategy of tapping into the "trusted voice" has also been used successfully in past census advertising campaigns. In 2000, the bureau enlisted help from entertainers like Sean Combs and Russell Simmons, as well as regional personalities like Dr. Joseph Marshall and his Street Soldier program in the San Francisco Bay Area to reach a young, multicultural demographic.
Hip hop, says Le, will again be one of the tools used to reach youth and young adults in 2010, and he believes it could even be more effective considering the growth of the culture.
"The hip hop generation 10 years ago is much different than it is today," says Le. "For example, in San Francisco we have a lot of Vietnamese and Cambodians in neighborhoods like the Tenderloin, Sunnydale and Bayview Hunters Point, and they're all about hip hop. The hip hop generation is multicultural."
Lawrence believes the campaign will be fruitful.
"Those young people who would not traditionally turn in the forms will understand the impact is much bigger than their own personal fear," says Lawrence. "It's important they see that the people they trust, trust the census."