Why You Should Worry About the Census

Did you know that the census does not distinguish between illegal immigrants and U.S. citizens? It does not, which raises questions such as: Should Arizona win more seats in the House of Representatives because it harbors a large number of illegal aliens? Or, should people who can’t vote decide how many electoral college votes California is awarded?

If you thought that the decennial nose-count was a $14 billion frivolity I have news for you: the 2010 census is generating the same kind of grass-roots organizing – and with many of the same participants -- who carried Barack Obama into the White House. Why the excitement? The census will determine not only the number of seats each state holds in the House of Representatives but also the distribution of some $400 billion in federal program monies. It will also guide the infamous redistricting by which state legislators redraw voting districts so as to bolster their power base. In other words, the stakes are high.

What’s new this year is that the Obama administration is pushing the Census Bureau to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to reach minority communities that have been “undercounted” in the past. Reporting higher numbers of residents in poor black or Hispanic neighborhoods will attract more federal (needed) funding, and more importantly, will boost the regions’ House seats, which will likely be filled by Democrats. It’s a cozy arrangement.

Astonishingly, the Census Bureau won an extra $1 billion in stimulus program funds to further this mission, though the cost of the census surely had been included in the fiscal 2009-2010 budget. The press release tagged $250 million of this amount for minority outreach, but it appears that more than $400 million may have been so directed. In particular, the Bureau has targeted Hispanic neighborhoods, where the high concentration of illegal immigrants makes people wary of responding to a government survey. Consequently, this 2010 census will include a far greater number of illegal immigrants than ever before.

Since its beginning, the census has never required respondents to identify their citizenship status. This approach was historically not considered significant, but as the number of illegal immigrants in the country has grown to an estimated 12 to 20 million, the impact on the country’s political makeup has become a matter of contention.

Just recently the Senate rejected a bill introduced by Senators Vitter of Louisiana and Bennett of Utah which would have required respondents to (confidentially) indicate their citizenship status. Senator Bennett knows from experience how the Census can impact states; in 2000 Utah missed earning a fourth House seat because some 11,000 Mormon missionaries were traveling outside the state and were not counted. In proposing his bill, Mr. Bennett chides the current process, saying it “unfairly provides the advantage to those communities with high illegal populations.”

He has a point. In a Wall Street Journal piece last August, authors John Baker and Elliot Stonecipher noted that eliminating non-citizens could cost California some 9 House seats by the end of the decade, while Texas could lose 4 seats. More seats, more power and of course more money.

The Census Bureau, in order to further its ambition for a full count, has enlisted some 30,000 “partners” –community organizations around the country -- for the purpose of promoting the survey. ACORN, the much-vilified organization convicted of voter fraud in the last election originally signed up to help but has since been dropped in response to wide-spread criticism.

However, their close ally the SEIU is still on the list, and has been pushing hard to promote the census among Hispanics. Andy Stern, head of the SEIU, has said that the last census “undercounted” the Latino community by some 3%, or one million people. His organization is determined to prevent that happening again. Why does he care? The SEIU is one of the fastest-growing unions in the country, with many of its new members coming from minority communities and a large portion employed by the government. Minority voters tend to elect Democrats, who generally favor expanded government, to represent them. The greater the number of Democrats in the House, the greater the expansion of the government work force, the larger the SEIU. It’s a marriage made in heaven.

As hundreds of thousands of volunteers fan out across the country in coming weeks, it will be impossible to know what message they spread. They will purportedly prompt participation in the census. It is also possible that they will encourage fraud, in an effort to boost particular communities’ benefits. Reggie Bacchus, a minister at a Chicago-area church, recently said he would “get the surveys and set up in barbershops, Laundromats, phone stores” – anywhere people might congregate. A spokesperson for the Census Bureau, Lisa Cochrane, said that forms would only be mailed to homes. Someone needs to tell Mr. Bacchus. While doubtless a large number of people are setting out to bring in funding that underserved communities need, this push to report higher numbers of residents in low income neighborhoods is certainly going to be hard to oversee. Unlike Election Day, there will be no poll watchers.

Liz Peek is a financial columnist and frequent Fox Forum contributor. For more go to LizPeek.com.