PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The next national census is coming in 2020, and here in Rhode Island’s state capital, the Census Bureau is conducting its sole dry run before the big head count of America.
In an immigrant-rich neighborhood not far from the statehouse, a laptop computer at the public library offers residents a direct link to an online census form, a major change from past counts that have been conducted by mail.
But three weeks after the library set up the laptop, only one person had used it.
The 2020 census, which will determine a range of functions from federal funding to congressional representation, has already drawn controversy after the Trump administration’s last-minute decision to ask respondents whether they are United States citizens. Six former Census Bureau directors have warned that the move would depress responses among minorities who fear that the government would use that information against them.
But that is just one of the challenges ahead.
The Providence census was supposed to be one of four that would test a wealth of new digital equipment and counting methodologies under starkly different conditions — in urban Rhode Island, rural West Virginia, Spanish-speaking Puerto Rico and tribal lands in Washington State. But budget problems, largely rooted in Congress’s refusal to fully fund the bureau, forced the cancellation of three tests. That has left Providence County as a make-or-break trial of the reimagined head count — the statistical equivalent of staging a Broadway musical after a single rehearsal in New Haven.
And even the Providence trial has been truncated: A publicity and citizen outreach blitz that was supposed to mimic the buildup to the 2020 count was scratched for lack of funds. Plans to count Providence County residents in dormitories and other group quarters have been put off after an effort to convert that head count from a paper tally to a digital one was sidetracked, also for lack of money.
Much is at stake here. The 2020 census is a total revision of the survey’s process, eight years in planning, that replaces most paper forms with online ones, equips census takers with custom smartphone apps instead of clipboards and digitizes many back-office operations, like verifying addresses, that have long been completed by hand.
In Providence, waves of mailings have given households links to the online census form or, in places where internet access is low, paper forms to fill out and mail back. Residents also can complete the census by telephone and on laptops and kiosks in libraries and post offices. Next month, census takers will start visiting households that did not complete the form in an effort to record their responses in person.
A month into the count, Census Bureau officials insist that the test, covering all 277,000 households in Providence County, is going smoothly. The acting director of the bureau, Ron Jarmin, told a House Appropriations subcommittee on April 18 that nearly a third of all households had completed census forms, most of them online, a share that was in line with predictions.
“I don’t think there have been any showstoppers that would have us scratching our heads and saying things aren’t working the way they’re supposed to,” he said.
And Jeff T. Behler, who heads the Providence County test as director of the Census Bureau’s New York region, acknowledged the trial’s money woes early this month, but said that the census that really matters, in 2020, will be amply funded.
The administration’s decision to add the citizenship question came too late to add to the test run in Providence. In his testimony, Dr. Jarmin estimated that including the question on the 2020 census form would cause a less than 1 percent increase in the number of people who fail to respond to the survey.
While that number sounds small, it is greater than the population of many small states. And as Dr. Jarmin allowed this month, the impact would be concentrated in minority communities where fear of the administration’s immigration policies runs high.
Some census experts say they believe the number will be far higher. In Providence County, local officials said this month that publicity surrounding the question had created enough confusion and fear that some residents were scared to fill out the form.
“We’re hearing from all kinds of people across the county that they’re afraid to respond,” Marisa O’Gara, the deputy chief of staff to Mayor Jorge O. Elorza, said in an interview. “They don’t know if the citizenship question is added to the test or not, but the assumption from a lot of people is that it is, so they don’t even want to bother responding.”
Rhode Island’s governor and some city officials complained at a news conference this month that the “gross incompetence” of the Providence County trial bodes a serious population undercount in 2020, costing the state federal dollars and perhaps one of its two House seats.
Those are not idle worries. Providence County has become a magnet for immigrants — especially from the Caribbean, Central America and South America. In the 1990 census, 15.5 percent of Providence residents identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino; by 2010, that had risen to 35 percent. Mr. Elorza is the son of Guatemalan immigrants.
In nearby Central Falls, a town of about 20,000 that is about 70 percent Latino, Mayor James A. Diossa, the son of Colombian immigrants, said many residents are either unaware that a test census is underway or fearful of identifying themselves to the government. “Everyone understands that people are concerned that the information can be shared,” he said. “So why should they participate? That’s where I come in and say, ‘Look, this is critical to federal funding, critical for services.’ ”
A middle school hosts evening classes for immigrants seeking to learn or improve their English skills. In a class of some 20 students, only two were willing to talk about the census to a visiting journalist — and although both were naturalized citizens, neither was willing to be identified.
Both said they had completed their own census forms but that many others would not.
“I listen to people in supermarkets and bakeries. The people don’t want to open their doors,” said a 46-year-old woman, who emigrated from Colombia. “For me, this is a beautiful country, and God bless America. It’s a country with many opportunities. But they think our president, he wants to have the information and know where he tries to send the immigration police.”
City leaders, schools and civic groups are trying to calm fears and ease the way toward filling out the form. Laptops linked to the census form website have been placed in nine Providence libraries and 30 post offices countywide, and the Census Bureau is training 1,000 local workers to help administer the census and persuade those who do not respond to fill out their forms.
Marta V. Martinez was a top citizen outreach official in Rhode Island during the 2010 count. In the 2000 census, she said, Central Falls had an extremely low response rate. In 2010, it was close to the national average. “It comes down to dollars,” she said. “They had money, and we had a lot of marketing.”
But while WPMZ, a Providence Latino radio station, hosted a Census Bureau advertising campaign to promote Hispanic turnout in 2010, “they said they had no resources” for the test census, said Tony Mendez, the station’s general manager.
“We actually need more education this time,” he said, “because it’s going to be a very different census.”
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