The US Census Bureau has made available an interactive map detailing the rate of return of census forms throughout the country. The 2000 census is currently available, with the 2010 map to appear shortly. The map is color-coded based on percentage of return. Along with the rest of the site, it is obviously meant to encourage participation and make clear the benefits of a complete and thorough population count.
Zooming in to look at the color map of my county in New York, it becomes clear that the rate of census return directly correlates to socio-economic status of local communities in this suburban area. Low-income areas of concentrated “ethnic diversity” show lower rates of census return than their wealthier neighbors.
It is with some irony, then, few economic resources will be allocated to these areas as a result of the census; at once a lamented cause and a result of sociopolitical marginalization. I presume that the Census Bureau is paying attention to this, and, in part, this interactive map is about rectifying disparities such as these. But what can be done about it?
The common perception is that low rates of document return are largely fuelled by illegal residency status and fears of retribution of some kind. Having said that, I filled out the census this year and low rates of return could also be attributed to its length and confusing language for the average citizen (or non-citizen) whose employment and housing status is not straightfoward. It also happens that this area of NY is rife with illegal housing set up in the basements, attics and empty rooms of multi-family homes. While the apartments are 'off the books', they are not solely occupied by illegal immigrants or migrant workers. Rental properties are scarce, and, for potential landlords, such practices fund second and third mortgage payments while discretely avoiding additional property taxes. This undoubtedly leads to some falsification of population details with unreported residents and lodgers falling off the grid. The practice is extremely common on Long Island.
There are practical issues surrounding counting these un-countables and, therefore, allocating the appropriate state and federal services to specific areas. But what impact does the census have on the concept of the nation in general? What do people believe about the census and why do many – not just illegal migrants – fear its implications? A great deal of the cultural politics of immigration, citizenship, democracy and access to resources cannot be inferred from statistics alone. Neither does social reality fit neatly into the boxes, multiple choice answers and flow charts of the census form. Without further attention to these symbolic as well as practical issues, the census remains extremely significant, but somewhat futile.