Scaring the Ghosts of Census Past

Posted on 08. Dec, 2009 by in Uncategorized

By Amy Yensi-
Some people would rather face ghouls, goblins and ghosts than the federal government.
That’s why census workers walked alongside costume-clad children in the 24th Annual South Bronx Halloween Parade. Their goal: to calm the fears of Bronx residents who are afraid to be counted in the upcoming census, even though the greater the population, the more the federal funding their neighborhood could receive.

“A lot of people are afraid of the government. A lot of government agencies collect information and might use it against you,” said Robert Butler, who has worked as a security guard in Hunts Point for more than 30 years. “Historically this area has been underrepresented.”

He’s right, said Vanessa Martinez, a volunteer for a non-profit housing group in the neighborhood. “Immigrants, they feel afraid. When you don’t give information, they don’t know it’s not going to hurt them,” she said. “More people in the census means money. Money means progress. Money helps the community.” Parade goers were encouraged to make census-themed banners, which would be judged for cash prizes, along with costumes and parade floats. Martinez drew a twenty-dollar bill on one side of her banner and on the back, her rendition of the White House, with the words “White House in Hunts Point” on it.

Hunts Point, like the rest of New York City, has seen a surge of undocumented immigrants in recent years. In 2008, the Pew Hispanic Center estimated 925,000 New York state residents fit into this category. That’s up from the 2002-2004 Pew estimate that said the state had 650,000 undocumented immigrants; most of them live in New York City.
There is no penalty for anyone who is an undocumented immigrant and participates in the census. Even with the assurances from the government, community leaders and the Census Bureau itself, undocumented immigrants are still uneasy with the process. Their fear can lead to them be underrepresented in the census.

Communities with high numbers of under-counted residents have a lot to lose money-wise. According to the Brookings Institution, New York City received $22.6 billion in federal funds in 2007, much of it based on population estimates from the 2000 census. If everyone is counted — including undocumented immigrants– it can increase the amount the city receives from Washington for things like Medicaid, Public Assistance, and Section 8 housing assistance. These programs are vital to Hunts Point. In 2008, over 55% of residents living in the community received income support from the federal government, according to the city’s planning department.

Hunts Point residents such as Celina Rich admit it won’t be easy to get everyone counted, but said the task is not impossible. “Inform people what it is about. What will the information be used for? And reassure them it’s not going to influence immigration status,” she said. Local officials, trying to reassure the community also participated in the parade. John Robert, the community district manager, marched in the parade and wore a costume he called “wind-blown.” He wore a baseball cap sideways, a crooked tie, and an assortment of leaves, wrappers, and even an empty cigarette box tapped to his pants.

With clipboards in hand, census workers convinced many parade goers to sign up to participate in the upcoming census. Aside from their involvement with the parade, census workers based in Manhattan have been making the trek to Hunts Point to post flyers in both Spanish and English on storefronts. While the lure of candy, prizes, and costumes brought Hunts Point residents to the census-themed Parade, it may not be enough. “I didn’t even know what the theme is,” said resident Jessica Mead, who brought her six children to the event.
But her daughter, Amildala Acevedo knew. “I think the census is all the people, all our generation of trick-or-treaters,” she said.

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